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The Cube: Apple's daftest, strangest romance
Ten years on, we remember the bonkers box
This Old Box Ten years ago on Sunday, Apple called it quits on one of its oddest products ever, the G4 Cube. The Cube was a strange and wonderful machine that continues to fascinate today - but it was widely perceived to have failed. Some people thoroughly enjoyed the failure, thinking it served Apple right.
Dull people will always cheer a bold experiment that goes wrong. After July 2001, Apple's design team never again attempted anything as daring or distinctive. It has produced beautiful designs, and unarguably influenced consumer technology design more than any one else.
But essentially, its computer designs are variations on the same theme. The professional laptops have continued in their rectangular, razor-like way. Even the iPad looks very much like how you'd expect a media slate to look like, for example.
But the Cube was different. The Cube looked like Buckminster Fuller talked; the Cube looked like it might have fallen to earth from an advanced civilisation, eager to escape orbit and looking to throw some ballast overboard. Or like a millionaire had given a mad bloke on a bus an unlimited budget.
"Hello. You look like you've done a lot of LSD. Well, here's several million dollars - go and design a computer, any shape you want. Just make sure it hangs upside down."
We don't have enough of this sort of thing - Apple's design is clever but it's now conservative, and this conservatism seemed to set in a decade ago. (Although the plans for its new corporate HQ complex show signs of the same daring and ambition).
I'll confess here that I loved the G4 Cube and still do. Until a couple of years ago, one was chugging away on my desk in the Reg office - it literally chugged - and another had a stint tethered to the home HiFi.
I've had five Cubes in all, although only two were healthy enough to do any work. I can't part with the fifth. In a few years it will be hauled out of storage to power a child-friendly Firewire keyboard or Pangea Software's Bugdom ("Ladybug" is already a hit with one of my toddlers).
Cubes evidently fascinate Steve Jobs, too. The first Mac was a near Cube, and his first NeXT machine was perfectly cubic. When Apple launched its flagship New York retail store, you can guess what shape it was.
What was it all about?
Unveiled at the height of dot.com exuberance, the Cube was the "fifth" product in a four product portfolio - the first of several paradoxes (we will explore a few more) and surely a sign something wasn't quite right. It didn't fit from the start. The new marvel was launched alongside three new matching monitors, two LED and one CRT, a new design of keyboard and mouse (not exclusive to the Cube) and Harmon Kardon produced a three-piece speaker to match.
The product wasn't a cube - the actual computer was an eight-inch cube, suspended in a thick, but clear ten-inch housing. Like Skylon, the essential design conceit was to give the impression of the thing floating above the surface.
In a typical Jobs touch, there was no mechanical switch visible on any surface (although there was a tiny "programmer's" reset switch underneath). The innards of the machine were one central core, which lifted right out very simply in one piece. And it was designed to operate without a fan: a convection system drew in air from a desk-level opening at the rear, and distributed it out through the grill at the top.
A silent supercomputer is what Apple emphasised. And it was priced accordingly. The Cube came in above the price of the cheapest professional PowerMac, using the latest G4 processor that had only just trickled onto the market the previous fall, at $1,799.
A faster model available only through the online Apple store (Apple had no retail stores back then) was priced at $2,299. Sans monitor. The cheapest PowerMac, announced the same day, cost $1,599.