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ATPM 7.04
April 2001


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Beyond the Barline

by David Ozab,

An iMac for Any Mood

This comes straight from the Unsubstantiated Rumors File, so take it with a grain of salt. According to a well-placed anonymous source at the MIT Media Lab (actually a personal friend, but I can’t divulge names), Apple has recently embarked on a project that will forever change the way we look at computers. Until now, the decision about a computer’s color had to be made at the time of purchase. Indigo or Graphite? Flower Power or Blue Dalmatian? What looks good on display (or online) might not look so good at home or in the office. Or, months later, what seemed like a daring and inspired choice will become tedious and predictable. Soon, you’ll find yourself gazing wistfully at the newest ads for the Tye-Dye or the Lava Lamp iMac. Suddenly, Flower Power just doesn’t seem so cutting edge anymore.

Introducing the “Mood iMac:” an iMac where the case color can be changed as easily as the desktop background. The idea was sparked a few years ago when Steve Jobs was watching “Scientific American Frontiers” on PBS. The host, Alan Alda, paid a visit to the MIT Media Lab. One of the amazing projects Alda highlighted during the show was a paper thin sheet of plastic that changed color (black, white, or transparent) in response to an electrical signal. The idea was to combine this signal into patterns that would be able to reproduce text and black and white images, resulting in a constantly changing newspaper. “Color is the next logical step,” the researcher told Alda, “and all it would require is additional sheets for each of the primary colors.”

It was one of those “eureka” moments. Fortunately Steve wasn’t in the bath at the time. No one wants to see him running naked though the Cupertino campus (certainly not anymore). But it was definitely an “epiphany.” Steve set to work. He contacted the Media Lab with his proposition. Let’s craft this incredible plastic into a computer case. The Bondi Blue iMac was already a success, and the “fruit” colors were shipping. The ultimate goal, though, now became the “Mood iMac.”

While researchers from the Media Lab worked in secret at one of the old “Skunk Works” hangars outside Edwards Air Force Base (which Disney studio had purchased from the government for the top secret work on Toy Story), Steve set the Apple publicity machine into gear. New colors were introduced with each line of iMac (and the new iBook) for the expressed purpose of testing public appeal. The last stage was the introduction of more elaborate designs, Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian, to prepare the Mac buying public for the Next Big Thing.

So how does it work? Well, the plastic sheet originally developed at the Media Lab contains thousands of microscopic disks which are white on one side and black on the other. So the sheet can be white, black, clear (by turning the disks on end), or any combination. The iMac case has three extra layers with red, green, and blue disks respectively. The principal is similar to an inkjet printer, but with many more dots.

In the System Preferences panel in OS X, an option labeled “Case” will bring up a panel with options for every case color in iMac history. One day you can go “Old School” with Bondi, the next day you can be dignified with Graphite, and the next day pick the “Berry” of your choice. Options in the General panel will allow you to coordinate your desktop color scheme with your case, and to randomize your case, so that every day you have a new iMac.

But that’s just the beginning. In the future, expect customizable “Case Themes,” and perhaps the most exciting prospect of all: real-time synchronization with iTunes. So if you’ve been waiting to buy that new iMac, and just can’t decide which color you want, just sit tight. By this fall, you’ll be able to buy one in every color you can possibly imagine.

Disclaimer: First off, when I say “unsubstantiated rumor” I mean what all Internet columnists mean: “I made this all up.” Secondly, while some of the above is true, namely that there was a “Scientific American” episode at the MIT Media Lab on the topic I described, I have no idea if Steve Jobs ever saw it, or if any of the subsequent events described ever occurred. Thirdly, though the old fable about Archimedes includes him yelling “eureka” and running naked out of the public baths and into the street, I have never heard a substantiated rumor of Steve Jobs running naked though the Cupertino campus or anywhere else for that matter. And finally, if you’re going to hold off on buying a computer based on what some grad student on Spring Break says, well…

April Fool!

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