The mid 1990’s were a rough time for Apple: still flush with cash from their rise in the ‘80s, but lacking any clear direction and at risk of fading into the deadly-boring white noise of the PC world. Apple’s product line had grown in seemingly random directions (printers! Cameras! The Newton! A whole catalog of weird Apple-branded tchotchkes!), and they were being pilloried in the press as being much closer to collapse than their actual financial situation indicated.
Most worryingly, their vaunted industrial design language had devolved from the clean, bold lines of the “Snow White” style developed by Hartmut Esslinger's Frog Design team (found in the Apple IIGS and various second-generation Macs) into the mushy and ill-defined beige-on-beige blandness that had infested the rest of the PC industry. Apple was teetering on the edge of losing its most valuable asset: its coolness.
Enter a young industrial designer named Jony Ive.
Ive had already been with Apple for a few years and had contributed work to several minor products, but a top-secret initiative to design a limited-edition Mac to celebrate the company’s 20th year in business would become his first major project for the company. Although initially conceived as a high-end (but fairly traditional) desktop machine, the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh (“TAM”) rapidly evolved under Ive’s leadership into a limited-edition showcase for the absolute bleeding-edge of technology and design, and would stand as a bold statement of Apple’s willingness to put design and customer experience ahead of any mere practical concerns. Upon release, the TAM sold for $10,000, was hand-delivered by an Apple employee wearing a tuxedo, and included a number of “executive” accouterments, including an infrared remote control for the TAM’s AV functions, a pen, notepad and leather CD case. More importantly, the TAM predicted the design elements that Apple is exploring nearly two decades later.
The TAM is split into two main components: a CPU / LCD hybrid panel, and a large Bose subwoofer which also functions as the power supply for the entire system. The surprisingly-thin desktop component features a number of standard options that were rare or non-existent in other computers of the era: an active-matrix LCD screen, TV tuner, FM radio receiver, vertically-mounted CD-ROM drive, and just about every expansion slot and connector type Apple had ever implemented.
The TAM incorporated a number of refinements and technologies borrowed from Apple’s PowerBook line – the LCD panel was borrowed from a PowerBook, and the motherboard was a heavily-modified hybrid of the boards found in the PowerBook 3400c and PowerMac 6500. The TAM features a standalone wired keyboard/trackpad hybrid unit, and the wrist-rest of the keyboard is topped with plush leather. The keyboard unit is designed to precisely nestle beneath the CPU when not in use, further reducing the TAM’s already svelte footprint.
The TAM is lacquered with a deep green/gold chameleonic metallic scheme, giving it a richness and visual depth often lost in photos but which is quite attractive in person (a charge later levied against the “Flower Power” iMacs, which looked grotesque in photos but quite pleasing in person). It floats atop an elaborate counter-weighted curved metal pedestal, which raises the CPU and gives it a distinct impression of weightlessness that directly foreshadows the “neck” of the iMac G4 and the “foot” of the iMac G5 and later Intel iMacs. The integrated Bose audio system (including the massive subwoofer / power supply) is also remarkable, especially compared against the typical tinny monophonic speakers found in most Macs and PC’s of the ‘90s, and was the first example of Apple’s long-running collaborations with audio-design companies (Bose, Harmon Kardon, Beats by Dre).
The generally-accepted narrative that accompanies nearly any reference to the Twentieth Anniversary Mac is one of excessive failure: too expensive, too weird, too niche, too flaky, too ambitious. The TAM was held up by Steve Jobs as a prime example of “everything that was wrong with Apple” when he returned and became the “iCEO.” The TAM certainly doesn't fit into the ultra-simplified and Dieter Rams-inspired design language that Ive and Jobs later championed with the iPod and other modern Apple products, and in contrast to the current Apple aesthetic the TAM looks like a bizarre artifact from some prehistoric age of excess. Nevertheless, the TAM was a hugely-influential test-bed for the design, technologies and astronomically-precise manufacturing methods that have led to Apple’s current success, and for that, we will always consider the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh museum grade.