15 years ago, Apple killed one of its most beautiful designs

Apple's iSight camera attached to a Mac G4.
Marcus Rolland/Wikimedia Commons

Today marks 15 years since Apple discontinued its iSight webcam. In my humble opinion, it was one of the most beautiful products Apple has ever designed. Even among the great company of iPhones and MacBooks, this little webcam stood out.

Shortly after iSight launched in 2003, Apple began building webcams into its Macs, which effectively sounded the death knell for iSight shortly after its launch. Yet look around today, and there’s nothing remotely so well designed in the world of webcams. It was a product of its time – and I know it will never come back – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn its demise.

The iSight webcam is coveted among Apple fans, and it’s clear why. It blended a simple form factor with a sleek, industrial-like aesthetic. Its perforated metal body and cylindrical shape made it simultaneously simple and futuristic, like a much-loved device of an advanced robot operating a high-tech orbital satellite. It was a space-age device with a touch of another world.

Apple’s iconic designer Jony Ive may not have been called upon to introduce it, but it’s hard to think of a device more worthy of a showy sizzle reel with the buttery smooth tones of Apple’s design kingpin.

Compared to modern webcams, there is no competition, at least from an aesthetic point of view. Today, even the best webcams are an ugly bunch, with sagging privacy covers, cheap plastic shells, and weird angles wherever you look. They are an afterthought to whoever creates them. For Apple, iSight was the main event.

nothing better

An Apple iSight webcam mounted on a computer monitor.
Drishti~CommonsWiki/Wikimedia Commons

Now comes the part where I make an embarrassing confession: I’ve never had a chance to use the iSight webcam. I know I know. It was busted long before I got my first Mac, and by modern standards, it can’t keep up with the picture you get on third-party video shooters.

All this time I’ve been quietly admiring it from a distance and wishing for a return to a more enlightened design era. Yet the mixed bag of Apple’s recent products — a crummy butterfly keyboard here, a gorgeous Apple Watch there — haven’t exactly raised my hopes.

Sure, I can look elsewhere. Some other companies have been inspired by iSight, with Dell introducing a suspiciously similar webcam a few years ago. Yet even when competitors copy iSight, they can’t get it right. Dell’s UltraSharp 4K Webcam looks like a cheap knock-off, with none of the visual flair and grandeur of Apple’s iconic camera. Even 15 years after its death, no one has been able to match the iSight’s looks.

Continuity camera era

A person using the Continuity Camera on a MacBook during a FaceTime video call.

Despite all my desire to return, I know that iSight will never return. For one thing, the Continuity Camera has made it impossible. There’s no way Apple can reinstate a standalone webcam (no matter how pretty) when the integrated option of the Continuity camera makes more sense.

In case you forgot it, Continuity Camera lets you mount an iPhone on your monitor and use it as a webcam. It’s simple, straightforward and doesn’t require you to spend money on a separate device. Not only do you get high quality iPhone lenses for your calls, but you also have a choice of lenses (depending on your iPhone model). It’s a great option, and Apple wouldn’t mind bringing back iSight.

Yet the Continuity Camera isn’t perfect, and this shows why standalone webcams are still being made today. For one thing, you can’t use your iPhone for anything else during the call. For another, it’s easy to knock over your screen, and you need a sturdy stand to put it on in the first place. However, at the end of the day, the Continuity camera works so well that there’s no need for Apple to reinstall iSight.

It makes me yearn for the iSight, a tool I know will never come back. It’s present in the Power Mac G4 Cube and iMac G4, as well as a group of classic Apple products that were beautifully over-engineered and proud of themselves. Maybe one day Apple will create a wonderful camera like iSight camera. If it does, don’t expect it to be a webcam.

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