Requiem for a Cube: Apple to Cease Production

The G4 Cube, one of the most heralded products when it debuted in Apple's lineup, passed away Tuesday after a long illness brought on by slumping sales and public indifference. The computer, just a few weeks shy of its first birthday, is survived by its better-received desktop brethren, the Power Mac G4 and the iMac. No funeral services have been planned. In lieu of flowers, Apple asks that mourners buy a 733MHz G4 tower.

The Cube's demise, announced by Apple in a terse press release issued a day before the Fourth of July holiday, marked a stark contrast to its flashy debut at the 2000 Macworld Expo in New York. Almost immediately, experts and pundits hailed the Cube as a triumph of industrial design. "The G4 Cube is simply the coolest computer ever," Apple CEO Steve Jobs proclaimed. And he wasn't the only one lavishing the machine with praise.

"The Cube is not sexy or aerodynamic, but neither a line nor a curve appears wasted," waxed Jon Fortt in the San Jose Mercury News. "If Howard Roark, architect from Ayn Rand's objectivist manifesto The Fountainhead, were to design a computer, this would be it."

Added the Boston Globe 's Hiawatha Bray: "Cool hardware matters, of course. I learned that the hard way when I foolishly predicted that the iMac would flop."

Business Week called the Cube one of the best products of 2000, Home Office Computing crowned it the product of the year, and it was the only computer to win a Design and Engineering Award from Popular Mechanics.

But sales never matched the accolades. Cube sales fell $90 million short of expectations during the fourth-quarter of 2000 and continued to slump into the first quarter of 2001 in which Apple reported its first quarterly loss in three years. To spur sales, the company slashed prices. By February, you could buy a 450MHz G4 Cube for $1,299 -- $200 less than the highest-end iMac.

"Cube owners love their Cubes, but most customers decided to buy our powerful Power Mac G4 minitowers instead," conceded Philip Schiller, Apple's vice president of worldwide product marketing, in the press release announcing that Apple would suspend Cube production.

So why did such a visually striking and dramatically cool product fail to strike a chord with more consumers?

"As much as Apple likes to believe cool sells, the Mac community likes flexibility," says Tim Bajarin, industry analyst and president of Creative Strategies. "It was clear when you talked to Mac users, they loved the design but had two issues with the Cube -- price and they wanted a more flexible, upgradable product."

The G4 Cube was the perfect product for the style-over-substance dot-com boom of the mid-to-late nineties. Unfortunately it didn't hit the market until mid-2000. By that point, the demand for computers was already dropping. PC sales declined across all sectors, as consumers stuck with the machines they had and CFOs began looking for ways to cut costs. The Cube's timing could not have been worse had it shown up at Boston Harbor on a chilly December evening in 1773 dressed as a bag of English Breakfast tea.

Its debut price of $1,799 for a 400MHz model -- that's without a monitor -- was seen by most as too expensive to justify for personal use. But since the Cube was hard to upgrade, it scared away the professional crowd. As a result, the Cube fell into a weird netherworld where it cost too much for some and offered too little for others.

"The Cube is too expensive," wrote Andrew Gore, Macworld 's editor in chief, in his October Vision Thing column . "It should fit between the high end of the iMac line and the low end of the G4 towers." Although Apple cut the base price by $500 and added a CD-RW drive, the Cube never caught on.

Apple isn't ruling out a triumphant return for the Cube. In announcing the suspension of production, the company hinted that "there is a small chance" the Cube could be reintroduced in the future, though it quickly added "that there are no plans to do so at this time."

So it looks like the Cube will join the Newton in Apple's discard pile, at least for the foreseeable future.

"If you agree with the following three statements, then the Power Mac G4 Cube is right for you," Gore wrote in his Cube review. "I don't need to add PCI cards to my Mac. I'm more concerned with a computer's ease of setup and its size than its performance. I think it's worth paying a premium for a low-end, stylish computer."

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