The iMac may get most of the design buzz, but when it comes to the real revolution for plastics in the computer age, Bruce Damer said that honor belongs to one of iMac's ancestors — the Apple II.
Prior to the introduction of Apple II in 1977, home computers were little more than hobbyist playthings. All of the thought went into the electronic guts that were jerry-rigged in wooden or metal boxes, said Damer, curator of the DigiBarn computer museum of Santa Cruz, Calif.
Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs had a different vision. While his partner Steve Wozniak concentrated on Apple's technology, Jobs was convinced the computer needed a friendlier face if it was ever going to gain acceptance. So he went to venture capitalist Arthur Rock, and talked him into investing $100,000 in the fledging company for the sole purpose of contracting with an injection molder to build a professional, high-end plastic package with an integrated keyboard to house the technology.
“It wasn't until that first, professionally molded plastic case came on the market that people accepted the computer as something for their home,” Damer said in a July 10 telephone interview. “It meant that a couple could go into the computer store and picture it as something in their home. It's wasn't ugly and scary like the other computers were. It looked friendly. It looked like a home appliance.”
The Apple II may look low-end today, but for its time it created the mold for home computers that would follow, he said. Jobs picked a beige color for the Apple II's shell because it would blend into a home environment. Other computer makers picked beige because Apple was beige. Jobs led the way with rounded corners for the processing unit and keyboard, and others followed suit.
“Wozniak understood the guts, but no one understood better than Steve Jobs how to package them,” Damer said.
Today, with most of the computer and home electronics production in Asia, the package is still the only thing that sets most computers apart, Damer said.
“Go to any place in China that's making computers,” he said. “The electronics are all the same. It's the same parts going down the line. You can't tell a difference between them until they end up in the package that says Dell or IBM or Hewlett-Packard.”