Apple today launched its first completely new computer in a year - and confirmed many of the rumours that lay behind the legal threats it has against a series of Mac-oriented Web sites.
Towards the end of his MacWorld Expo keynote, CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the Power Mac G4 Cube, a stylish 8in all-round desktop machine that, thanks to its vertically mounted DVD-ROM drive, has already been dubbed the Mac Toaster.
It doesn't look much like a computer, but the Cube is nonetheless an impressive piece of work. It sports a 500MHz PowerPC 7400 CPU (aka G4) yet ships with no fan, for what Apple claimed was "virtually silent" operation. It also bundles two spherical transparent speakers, and Apple's new optical mouse and extended keyboard.
Specification-wise, the Cube contains 64MB PC-100 SDRAM (expandable to 1.5GB), a 20GB hard drive, ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics, built-in 56Kbps modem and a full complement of ports: USB (two), FireWire (two), 10/100 Ethernet and AirPort. As anticipated, however, there are no internal expansion ports. All the internals fit into a cubic enclosure that slides out from the base of the unit. The US price is $1799 and the machine will ship early August. Apple has yet to unveil UK pricing and availability.
As we say, it's a stylish box, and we can see it appealing to hard core Apple buffs and the kind of people who buy Bang and Olufsen hi-fi equipment. Indeed we expect to see it quickly replace the iMac in fashionable furniture magazines and catalogues as a model for desks and workstations.
It's certainly difficult to see the Cube appealing to mainstream consumers or professional buyers, thanks to its price and lack of expandability, respectively. Apple presumably hopes to attract a third market, business buyers, but again the price rules the machine out for all but the most senior of executives, and it's questionable how many of those are that bothered about design. Slick styling didn't do much for Packard Bell's would-be life-saver, the Z1.
The lack of a clear customer base may, however, be the Cube's saving grace. New Apple is predicated upon a new approach to computer design, and the company needs to explore new ways of pushing this philosophy beyond the iMac and the PowerMac, particularly as so many PC vendors have imitated them in their two years of life. Jobs needed to pull something special out of the hat, and whether you love the Cube or loathe it, that's what he did today.
And the Cube's esoteric nature should ensure it doesn't confuse buyers. Apple long had a problem in that it produced too many models targeted at too narrow a customer base, ensuring high production costs and confusion among buyers as to which model to opt for. The company's previous CEO, Gil Amelio, embarked on a simplification plan that Jobs picked up and ran with, trimming the Mac family down to a single consumer desktop, pro desktop, consumer laptop and pro laptop.
The Cube adds an extra layer to that matrix, and so Apple runs the risk of returning to the bad old days. Clearly, Jobs is confident that the company can maintain - financially as well as promotionally - three separate models.
And, of course, Apple's product grid now has space for a similar machine aimed at the portable PC market. Last year, Jobs said he wants to emulate Sony's ability to build for itself a highly prized brand. Can we expect to see a Vaio-style supersleek executive PowerBook in the not too distant future? ®