A major perk of my job is reserved front-row seating at the Macworld Expo keynote. There was a time when this was more purgatory than perk. (I'm still recovering from Gil Amelio's infamous three-hour keynotathon.) But since Steve Jobs returned to the helm, the keynote has become the Mac market's only E Ticket ride.
At this summer's address, Steve pulled out all the stops. Apple has never introduced more products--ever. It was almost too much to bear, like the cracking of a hundred lashes across the eyes and ears of the audience: Crack! New mouse. Crack! New keyboard. Crack! Dual-G4 Power Macs. Crack! iMovie 2. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack! New iMacs. Apple should have handed out translucent slide rules to help keep track.
My palms were sweaty and my fingers sore from trying to take notes, my eyes burned because I hadn't dared blink on the chance I might miss something, and my head reeled with monikers and configurations. What was it again? An iMac DV + that had FireWire but no DVD drive? Or was that the iMac DV? And the Power Mac G4 with the dual 500MHz processors came with the rich Corinthian leather, right? Or was that the new jellyfish-like 17-inch Apple Studio Display?
When I could bear it no more, Steve stopped, turned to the audience, and said, "Oh, just one more thing." And from behind a curtain came a shiny, silver blue box, about eight inches square, that seemed to float an inch above the table in a case of clear plastic. And he said its name: "This is the Power Mac G4 Cube."
And I passed out.
Okay, I didn't pass out, and I wasn't even all that surprised. It would've been hard to be surprised when the rumor sites had been full of details about a cube Macintosh for weeks in advance of the intro. One site even posted pictures!
But no amount of advance info could have prepared me for the impact of seeing the Cube up close and personal, following, as it did, a virtual barrage of fairly uninteresting intros. (Dual-processor G4s? Call me when Mac OS X ships. New iMac colors? Oh, yeah, that's innovation. And don't even get me started on iTools.) About the only other thing that got my pulse racing was iMovie 2 (to see just how fast, check out my review elsewhere in this issue). But the Cube? I may not have lost consciousness, but I was thinking, "Oh, cooool!"
The mere fact that Mac users seem so violently divided on their opinions of the Cube proves that it's a product that's pushing the envelope (check out the Cube forum at www.macworld.com/2000/07/19
/cube.html). For me, the best part is that the Cube reaches the Mac middle class: users who find the iMac hopelessly anemic yet hunger for its style and simplicity. It's a G4 that breaks the rules; the Cube's mere existence calls for an entirely new rulebook.
The iMac has revolutionized the computer world by offering high style and low maintenance at a reasonable price. And while it may not offer any real expansion, it includes almost all the key enabling technologies available on the platform (AirPort, FireWire, USB, and DVD), so it can still get the job done.
However, it does leave open a large gap in Apple's desktop product line, similar to the gap between iMovie and Final Cut Pro. iMovie 1 was a low-end editing tool that was a great intro to making digital movies--but users hit its limits almost immediately. Final Cut Pro is incredibly powerful, but too expensive and way too difficult for most regular people to use. In other words, the vast majority of Mac users, those who are proficient users but not necessarily experts, didn't have a tool geared to their needs.
iMovie 2 clearly addresses that middle class of users, just as the Cube will address users in search of both power and simplicity in a Macintosh. It's about time Apple figured out that there's a huge number of users who have either had to make do with an iMac or knuckled down and bought a G4 tower that they really didn't need. I believe the vast majority of the Mac community is composed of people who are experts at using a Mac in their job or hobby but not experts at every aspect of that computer.
Case in point: I have a friend who's a Web designer and a mixed-media artist. She can make HTML jump through flaming hoops, but ask her to set up an AirPort network or edit a DV stream in Quick-Time Pro, and she balks.
Now, my friend is certainly no newbie, and she needs the power of the G4 to get her job done. But she doesn't need all those PCI slots or the extra bulk of a tower in a home office already crammed with her art. And it would be nice if the computer were easy to set up and use. Until now, her only choice has been a G4 tower. But by the time you read this, she'll be able to get a Cube, and I'm guessing she'll already have one.
About the only stumbling block will be the price. At $1799--which doesn't include enough RAM or a display--the Cube is too expensive. It should fit between the high end of the iMac line and the low end of the G4 towers, not float between single- and dual-processor G4 machines. A price tag of $1499 would allow users to get a reasonably equipped system for just under $2000, a magic number in the midrange market.
I find it more than a little ironic that just a few summers ago the most popular Expo fashion was a T-shirt with a picture of Bill Gates on it. He had an assortment of cybernetic implants pasted to his head, like a dorky Locutus of Borg. The caption below the picture stated, "Prepare to be Assimilated."
Three years later, it looks as though it's Apple who will be doing the assimilating. And I, for one, can't wait for the Apple Cube to invade our space.
Andrew Gore is Macworld's editor in chief. To comment on this column, please visit the Vision Thing forum at http://www.macworld.com/columns/visionthing/.