This year marks the tenth anniversary of the iPhone, leaving the world to wonder if Apple is going to pull something special out of its sleeves with this year’s much-anticipated new model.
But back in 1997, right when it looked like the company was about to completely implode, Apple was celebrating another anniversary. It had been twenty years since Apple had officially incorporated, and it marked the occasion with the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh, or TAM.
The TAM, retailing for a whopping $7,499, was an all-in-one PC, kind of a spiritual ancestor of the iMac, back when the whole idea of a monitor that contains the computer was totally crazy. It was designed by a young Jony Ive, who would go on to become Apple’s resident creative genius.
Take a look:
If you feel like you’ve seen this before, you might be right. Jerry’s apartment sported a Twentieth Anniversary Mac during the final season of “Seinfeld,” and Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred had one in “Batman & Robin.”
Apple history holds that the TAM started as a prototype for a mass-market consumer device, but then-Apple CEO Gil Amelio and his executives rushed it to market as a luxury novelty. This little monster has some weird features, including a CD drive that would keep playing on the high-end Bose speakers even if your Mac crashed, an FM radio, a TV tuner card to watch cable television on the screen, and a leather palmrest on the keyboard.
The best and weirdest part is that if you paid the $7,499 for the Twentieth Anniversary Mac, Apple would hand-deliver it via limo and set it up for you, in a full-on concierge experience. The rumour is that your Apple deliveryperson would actually wear white gloves, to really hammer home the premium feeling.
Jobs takes control
The TAM was introduced at a crucial moment in Apple’s history: Cofounder Steve Jobs had just come back to Apple as a “consultant” following 11 years in exile, after Amelio masterminded the purchase of his startup NeXT for $429 million. Amelio was betting big on Jobs — Sun and others had previously passed on a bid to buy up Apple for a meager $6 per share, and the company was facing the very real threat of insolvency.
In January 1997, Amelio hosted a Macworld keynote intended in large part to reintroduce Jobs to Apple fans, concluding with the unveiling of the Twentieth Anniversary Mac. That three-hour keynote is widely regarded as a complete disaster, with the New Yorker describing a visibly nervous Amelio’s performance as “unrehearsed.” Meanwhile, Jobs got a standing ovation.
Watch the very long highlight reel from that Macworld here:
The Twentieth Anniversary Mac launched in March 1997. By that July 4th weekend, Jobs had convinced Apple’s board to oust Amelio and give him control — winning out over Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who famously wanted the job.
And one of the very first things Jobs did was kill the Twentieth Anniversary Mac and institute price cuts to clear out the final stock. The price was cut to $3,500, and then by March 1998, down to $1,995. All in all, the TAM only sold 12,000 units.
The conventional wisdom is that Steve Jobs thought it was a symbol of Apple’s out-of-control excess and lack of focus. The TAM was a casualty, along with the Newton eMate PDA and the Apple QuickTake digital camera. Jobs also reportedly told Ive that he never wanted Apple to make a television again.
Still, the weird legacy of the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh lives on, as Jobs and Ive would collaborate on the very first iMac, a hit that would bring Apple back to profitability. The very first iMac was released a mere five months after the TAM was fully taken off the market in 1998. And the rest, as they say, is history.