Was it Steve Jobs or the iMac that saved Apple at the back-end of the 1990s? Steve returned to Apple's helm in late 1997. The iMac was unveiled in spring 1998, and went on sale that autumn. It's a matter of contention whether the iMac was Steve's idea or had been in the pipeline long before his return to Apple.

Whatever, it's pretty clear that the iMac and Steve's vision made a perfect couple. In the preceding years, Apple had made headlines only through the gloomy predictions of financial analysts and industry observers. But on May 6, 1998, Apple was suddenly back at the top of the IT innovation mountain.

The iMac was quickly everywhere. The original G3 CRT design is undoubtedly the best-known personal computer model ever. In the long run it may have sold fewer units than the Dell Dimension or Compaq Presario (although it was for some time the top-selling desktop PC), but it defined the personal computer at the turn of the millennium. Although it was followed by other award-winning industrial designs from Jonathan Ive - such as the polycarbonate Power Mac,
G4 Cube, and Titanium PowerBook - the iMac is the symbol of modern-day PC popularity and of Steve Jobs' Apple itself. Only the iPod has come close to equalling its status as an icon of our times. It doesn't save lives, but it has helped change them - as the figurehead of the emerging “digital lifestyle".

Partly, its popularity is down to its pretty see-through colours - even if Apple did tire of its rainbow range, slowly draining the colour to its eventual minimalist white. Its bubble-like shape was also a slap in the face to an industry content to churn out beige towers actually more boring than the cardboard boxes they shipped in. The public wasn't generally in the know of its other radical PC revolutions - no floppy drive, USB as standard, neat cable connections to one side, and so on. For a while they even loved its stupid puck-shaped mouse.

Topping the G3 iMac's design was an impossible challenge, but in some ways Apple succeeded. After creating the original iMac's bigger faster brother, the G4 eMac, the company waited till 2002 before showing off the second-generation iMac. This was the first PC to take advantage of tumbling LCD screen prices - a logical step in the evolution of iMac. Ive's original plans for the new iMac featured an upright flat-panel display with processor and drives mounted vertically behind. Jobs got his first view of the prototype in the autumn of 2000, and he wasn't impressed - it lacked the excitement and purity of design of the original.

According to Owen Linzmayer's book Apple Confidential 2.0, Jobs took Ive on a stroll round his vegetable garden - telling him, “Each element has to be true to itself. Why have a flat display if you're going to glom all this stuff on its back? Why stand a computer on its side when it really wants to be horizontal and on the ground? Let each element be what it is, be true to itself." Pointing to the surrounding flora, Jobs suggested that the new iMac should “look like a sunflower". Within a day Ive had a working sketch of a computer with an LCD mounted on an adjustable neck.

Just like the iMac G3, the iMac G4 was jaw-droppingly innovative. The design is arguably more groundbreaking than Apple's lauded Cube, which was really just a beautifully rendered feat of micro-engineering. Maybe, like the Cube, it proved to be too radical for the masses - who appreciated the style of the G3 iMac, but still recognized it as a PC. Apple has been forced to discontinue the current flat-panel iMac design in favour of a new one this autumn; see page 19. While the original managed to stay in the market for nearly five years, Mark II has been written off in half that time.

This comes down to numbers. Apple admitted that unit sales of iMac systems were down 20 per cent during the first six months of 2004. The company said sales have been “negatively affected by a shift in consumer preference to portable systems and competitor desktop models with price points below $1,000". Apple has already dropped the price of its CRT-based eMac consumer desktop to capture these low-end sales. But it may also be clearing its inventory before a form-factor change. Could Apple revamp both the eMac and iMac this year - or ditch the eMac altogether?

Motorola's G4 is going nowhere, and the new iMacs won't impress if they aren't any faster than the previous generation. G5 is surely the only way to go - and is a likely explanation of why Apple is now facing such a long hold-up before it can start shipping. Even after it introduced the G4 iMac, for well over a year Apple kept selling the old G3 model alongside it. Today, it's selling none - a genuine concern on its signature product. An Apple without iMac is almost impossible to imagine. Apple knows this - it's no coincidence that it held off reporting the issue until the first trading day of its new fiscal quarter.

Apple has clearly either seriously miscalculated its iMac production and inventory schedules or been hit by a design or third-party supply curveball. All indications pointed to an iMac III unveiling at June's WWDC. That it instead announced a new product so early, without actually announcing it (no feature specs, pictures, pre-order, etc) is so atypical of Apple that it's obviously a screw up. Its admission that “our planning was obviously less than perfect" is an understatement worthy even of the hype-happy company's habitual overstatements.

I expect Apple to unveil the new iMac some time before the September ship date, as this lack of any iMac is unacceptable. (It may even be announced by the time you read this; check www.macworld.co.uk in the meantime). If iMac II was too radical a design for the masses, expect iMac III to look more like Ive's original non-sunflower design - set squarely in the digital home, with wireless components aplenty. More colour choices would be welcome - look at the success of the G3 iMac and sold-out iPod mini - but this is sadly unlikely.

Apple needs to re-evaluate its marketing, as well. Pretty pictures don't work for everyone. Buy a Mac. Don't get viruses. Stop spam. Forget crashes. These are the things 95 per cent of consumers want to hear. Then show them iMovie, iPhoto and Office working on the Mac. Push Mac, not just iMac.

The lack of iMac for a few months doesn't take Apple back to square one. It's a cock-up that we hope will be forgotten as soon as we lay eyes on the next-generation iMac. After all, the best cure for a hiccup is a big surprise. MW