It now seems fairly certain that Apple will introduce new iPhones in September that will come in a variety of colors. Rumors point to the new low-end iPhone (5C) coming in brighter colors, similar to the current iPod Touches, while the high-end iPhone (5S) is getting a gold option. While this seemingly radical transition to different colors of the new iPhones has surprised many, Apple has been a company that has gone through numerous phases in terms of the colors of their products. Looking back, you can see the ebbs and flows of color in Apple products, from the Mac to the iPod to the iPhone.
From Beige to Platinum
Apple was once a company awash in dull, colorless cases for its computers. This was the norm for almost every computer company of the seventies and eighties and Apple was no different. While it did have a rainbow colored logo, that was the extent of bright colors you would see on early Apple products. Apple's computer cases can be broken down into three main colors - beige, fog, and platinum.
Most of Apple's early computers came exclusively in the rather dull beige color. This included such landmark computers as the Apple IIe and original Macintosh.
However, Apple did do a few experiments with colorful cases in the form of various prototypes. They made red, blue, and black prototypes of the Apple IIe, although these were never offered for sale. Also, for those that are shocked Apple would make a gold iPhone, it did make a gold case for the Apple IIe to commemorate the millionth produced.1
During the eighties, Apple slowly began to move its computers away from the standard beige color. Initially, Apple experimented with an off-white color codenamed “fog,” which coincided with their new Snow White design philosophy.2 The Apple IIc was the first computer to use this updated color, although it was short lived and only appeared in a few Apple products.
Apple eventually introduced the "platinum" color for its cases, which by the late eighties became the color of every Apple computer. The platinum color was more of a warm gray and gave Apple's computer a more modern look compared to the aging beige color. This color was one of the most popular in Apple's history, lasting all the way to the late nineties. The last Apple computer to feature the platinum color case was the PowerMac G3.3
The platinum phase of Apple computer cases continued into the nineties, however, the introduction of the Powerbook line of computers added a new color for Apple - dark gray. Every Powerbook from the 100, introduced in 1991, until the Titanium Powerbook in 2001, used various shades of dark gray for the cases.4 This made the Powerbook stand out compared to most desktop computers, although almost every other computer manufacturer copied Apple’s dark color casing for their laptops. It’s interesting to imagine an alternate universe where the Powerbooks came in the standard platinum color of Apple’s desktop computers.5
The second coming of Steve Jobs to Apple in 1997 began a new phase of colors in the company. The introduction of the iMac in the radical “Bondi Blue” case was a revolution in the computer industry. No other computer manufacturer made a computer other than in neutral colors (beige, gray, black, white). The iMac changed that and its translucent colored plastic was endlessly imitated, even in things like alarm clocks and grilling machines. Apple soon expanded the iMac to a wide variety of colors - including red, orange, green, purple and the infamous Flower Power and Blue Dalmatian designs. Apple also introduced the iBook line of computers, using similar bold colors such as blue, orange, and green.
The colorful phase of Apple computers didn’t last long, and they soon entered the current color-free period. The redesigned iBook in 2001 and iMac in 2002 were stripped of their bright colors and made simply white. Soon Macs became almost universally made of metal rather than plastic and lost all hints of the previous brighter colors. The current Mac line-up is exclusively minimalist and monochromatic, with every model sharing a similar aluminum and black appearance.
While the Macs of the 00s were drained of their colors, the iPod line has become more colorful over the years. Initially, the original iPod came only in white, however, with the introduction of the iPod Mini, Apple offered a variety of colors. The colors themselves have mostly been lighter and more pastel, coming in various shades of blue, pink, green, etc.
From the graphs above you can see the Mini and Nano iPods have had the most colors, with the Classic and Touch iPods remaining rather color-free until recently. Looking at these color variations, there seems to be little rhyme or reason why colors change, however, there are some reoccurring themes. The Mini and Nano always have a neutral gray, black, or white version in addition to the brighter colors. There is also usually a blue, pink, and green version, although the shades of those change from version to version. The least favored colors are gold (used only once) and dark purple and orange. Also, the Product Red campaign has made a bright red version a reoccurring option.
iPhone & iPad
The iPhone, and subsequently the iPad, stood apart from the iPods by remaining extremely devoid of color for most of their iterations. In terms of the iPhone, the first model came exclusively in black. With the introduction of the iPhone 3G, Apple offered a white variation, which it continued to offer for later models. The iPad has followed a similar trajectory and is only offered in either black or white. A gold version of the high-end iPhone and multiple colors of the low-end iPhone will be a fairly significant break from the past. I suspect we might eventually see the iPhone colors start to appear as options for the iPad too, especially the iPad Mini.
I wonder if these new colorful iPhones, along with the more colorful iOS 7, is a signal that Apple is transitioning into another colorful phase, similar to that of the late 90s. I always found it strange how Steve Jobs pushed the colorful iMac and iBooks, yet completely turned away from those colors after only a few years. Maybe he saw that fashion and tastes change rather quickly and wanted to pivot and stay ahead of the game. The bright colors would soon become garish if Apple kept them too long, so Jobs took Macs in a completely different direction with neutral colors that would be more timeless and less at the whim of current fashion.
Yet, maybe Apple realizes that there is a new wave of fashion that wants bright colors again, most likely spurred on by younger generations. The monochromatic look Apple has maintained for over a decade may have worn its welcome, and Apple needs to become more colorful to stay relevant. While I personally prefer the more neutral colors, I don’t mind Apple turning in this direction. I think colored iPhones will be a giant hit with the youth market, and Apple is still offering the more subdued black and white versions. We will see in the coming years how this new phase unfolds.
I’ll end with a classic Apple commercial, “Colors.”
1. Snow White actually doesn't refer to the color, but rather the fact there was to be seven projects code-named after the Seven Dwarves on which the new design language was to be applied↩
4. This dark gray color was also used for the Apple’s Quicktake digital cameras and the rare Apple Twentieth Anniversary Mac. A similar, but greenish tinted color, was used for the Newton MessagePad.↩
5. The closest you can come to a platinum Powerbook is the Macintosh Portable, Apple’s first foray into portable computing. However, the Macintosh Portable was a beast of a computer and shared little resemblance to the svelte Powerbooks.↩