FEATURE: 07.27.20 – This month and year marks two decades since the world was introduced to the Power Mac G4 Cube and for its 20th anniversary, Wired magazine took a look at how the “coolest computer ever” to come from within the walls of Apple’s former headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California epically (and miserably, to Steve Jobs’s misery) failed.
The Power Mac G4 Cube, which was announced on July 19, 2000, was quite possibly the best example of industrial design ever found in an Apple product. It was simple yet elegant but as stunning as it was to behold, however, the revolutionary computer had a very short lifespan and only 349 days after it was unveiled to the masses, then Apple CEO Steve Jobs would freeze production of the minuscule machine and — to partially quote the company’s own headline from a July 3, 2001 press release announcing its discontinuation — put it on ice.
Last week, in his weekly column on Wired.com — written exclusively for subscribers to the magazine (which this MacPrices writer happens to be), but, on occasion, is published sans the paywall for non subscribers as in this case — Wired senior writer, Steven Levy, looked back at the Power Mac G4 Cube and how the short-lived computer bombed. In it, Levy recalled and shared highlights from an interview he conducted during a one-on-one session with Jobs at the company’s then headquarters, 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, on the eve of the product’s introduction at the 2000 Macworld Expo (held in New York) that Summer.
“The main reason he had summoned me to Apple’s headquarters was sitting under the cover of a dark sheet of fabric on the long table in the boardroom of One Infinite Loop,” wrote Levy.
“‘We have made the coolest computer ever,’ he told me. ‘I guess I’ll just show it to you.’ He yanked off the fabric, exposing an 8-inch stump of transparent plastic with a block of electronics suspended inside. Alongside it were two speakers encased in Christmas-ornament-sized, glass-like spheres. ‘The Cube,’ Jobs said, in a stage whisper, hardly containing his excitement. ‘Isn’t that beautiful? I think it’s stunning!'”
In a Newsweek magazine article published on July 30, 2000 about Apple thinking inside the box — which was written by Levy (and the reason for the invitation by Jobs to Apple’s headquarters where the writer received a personal preview of the minuscule machine in question) — the then Apple CEO touched on some points in regard to the Power Mac G4 Cube. Most notable among them was the following comment:
“I really do think people judge a book by its cover,” Jobs told the magazine.
To paraphrase what Levy wrote in that Newsweek article, if Apple’s customers indeed judged books (computers) by their covers — and, in his own words, were willing to pay a premium for high style — then the Power Mac G4 Cube would hit the best seller list. The writer would go on to describe the computer and how it had lines that were unpolluted by visual static with no buttons sticking out. The machine sensed your finger when you pressed the “on” spot and CDs dropped into a slot like, as he wrote, a Pop Tart. Furthermore, there was no aural pollution either, despite the densely packed components, due to a central heat sink that cooled the machine by convection which eliminated the need for a fan. He also would add that Jobs had gotten a lot of mileage from colors (referencing the three new iMac models in ruby, indigo, and snow that were unveiled at the Macworld Expo in New York the week before his article was published) but, according to him, the Cube’s (the “box”)most striking visual effect was transparency as found in its shell, noting that entire teams of engineers had to work on its specially molded plastic, going with an optical grade polymer that would resist scratches and modulate the way light would refract through the surface.
The following is a quick rundown of the technical specifications of the Power Mac G4 Cube in its standard configuration — a high end version of the computer priced at $2,299 was available for purchase through the Apple Store (online) with a 500MHz processor, a 30GB hard drive, and 128MB of RAM — courtesy of the website apple-history.com:
- product dimensions: 10 x 8 x 8 in. (height, width, and depth)
- weight: 14 lbs.
- Mac OS version: 9.0.4
- processor: PowerPC 7400 G4
- CPU speed: 450MHz
- bus speed: 100 MHz
- GPU: ATI Rage 128 Pro
- memory: 64MB RAM
- optical drive: DVD-ROM
- hard drive: 20GB(ATA-66)
- ports: USB 1.1 (2x) and FireWire 400 (2x)
- modem: 56 Kbps
- Ethernet: 10/100 Base-T (Gigabit Ethernet a build-to-order option)
- Wi-Fi: 802.11b AirPort ready (optional)
- price: $1,799 (in December 2000, the standard configuration received a price cut of $300 down to $1,499 and lowered again in February 2001 by $200 to $1,299)
After receiving a personal demo of the product from Jobs, Levy wrote (on Wired.com) that he admitted it was gorgeous,.
“”But I had a question for him. Earlier in the conversation, he had drawn Apple’s product matrix, four squares representing laptop and desktop, high and low end. Since returning to Apple in 1997, he had filled in all the quadrants with the iMac, Power Mac, iBook, and PowerBook. The Cube violated the wisdom of his product plan. It didn’t have the power features of the high end Power Mac, like slots or huge storage. And it was way more expensive than the low end iMac, even before you spent for a necessary separate display required of Cube owners. Knowing I was risking his ire, I asked him: Just who was going to buy this?”
According to Levy, Jobs didn’t miss a beat and said that a ton of people who were pros — every designer (to quote the then Apple CEO) — would buy it. The Wired senior writer wrote that Jobs’s implicit message was that this new product innovation was so great that people would alter their buying patterns just to purchase one. However? That didn’t happen. The Power Mac G4 Cube failed to, in Levy’s own words, push buttons on the computer-buying public.
Jobs told Levy that the Power Mac G4 Cube would sell millions but Apple sold fewer than 150,000 units.
The Wired senior writer wrote that the idea of such a quick turnaround (shutting down production on the computer less than a full year after it was announced) was nowhere in Jobs’s mind, however, something else about the man and his minuscule machine that, according to Levy, spoke not of failure but of why the chief executive officer was a successful leader who, in Levy’s own words, once it was clear that his Cube was a brick, was quick to cut his losses and move on. The reaction to the bad sales figures showed how quickly, when it became necessary, Jobs could abandon even a product dear to his heart.
“The apotheosis of Apple design was also the apex of Apple hubris. … I was struck by how much Jobs had been drunk on the elixir of aesthetics. ‘Do you really want to put a hole in this thing and put a button there?’ Jobs asked me, justifying the lack of a power switch. ‘Look at the energy we put into this slot drive so you wouldn’t have a tray, and you want to ruin that and put a button in?'”
Of all the Apple computers ever made, next to the Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh and the titanium PowerBook G4, the Power Mac G4 Cube is at the very top of my list of three dream machines I wish I had owned.
I’ll never forget the first time I laid my eyes on a Power Mac G4 Cube when I saw one on display, in all of its glory, in the Apple products section of a CompUSA (this was before the days of the Apple Store). The computer was so small and very minimalist, but, most of all, drool worthy — like eye candy on steroids — and I wanted to just take it home with me from the store that day but its price was out of the ballpark for what I could afford (one of the primary reasons attributed to the product’s failure and short shelf life).
Included in the Wired senior writer’s column last week on Wired.com were some featured quotes from a collection of excerpts from his one-on-one interview with Jobs (which were originally published in a sidebar that accompanied his July 30, 2000 article for Newsweek). After Levy referenced NeXT (Jobs’s previous company following his ouster from Apple before returning in 1997) and pointed out that it too had made a cube-shaped machine, the then Apple CEO was prompted to give the following response in regard to the Power Mac G4 Cube:
“Yeah, we did one before. Cubes are very efficient spaces. What makes this one [special] for me is not the fact that it’s a cube but it’s like a brain in a beaker. It’s just hanging from this perfectly clear, pristine crystal enclosure. That’s what’s so drop dead about it. It’s incredibly functional. The whole thing is perfect.”
And drop dead the whole thing did, to Jobs’s utter misery.
At the University of Oxford in England, current Apple CEO Tim Cook — in an October 2017 conversation with the university’s business school students — would touch on the topic of the Power Mac G4 Cube, describing the computer that his predecessor built as, to quote Cook’s own words, a spectacular commercial failure from the first day. Cook also shared a short anecdote on the company’s former chief executive officer, offering a closer look into the thought processes inside the Apple co-founder’s head.
“Steve, of everyone I’ve known in life, could be the most avid proponent of some position, and within minutes or days, if new information came out, you would think that he never ever thought that before.”
According to Levy, however, jobs did think it and wrote that he had two hours worth of cassette tapes that contain his interview with the then Apple CEO — from that Summer day in July 2000 when he got a first-hand look at the Power Mac G4 Cube (Jobs’s, in Levy’s own words, digital love child) — to prove it.
In the July 3, 2001 press release announcing the indefinite suspension of production on the Power Mac G4 Cube, the official statement provided by Apple Vice President of worldwide product marketing, Phil Schiller, was that Cube owners loved their Cubes but most customers decided to buy Apple’s (more) powerful Power Mac G4 towers instead. According to the company, there was a small chance it would re-introduce an upgraded model of the unique computer in the future, but that there were no plans to do so at that time (and, as we all know, that never happened, short of the introduction of the Cube-like Mac mini four years later in January 2005).
As a footnote, apple-history.com indicated that this minuscule machine was not discontinued — at least, not officially — and despite the remarkable feat of engineering, according to the website, Apple quietly let the world forget the disappointing failure of the Power Mac G4 Cube.
A Note from the Author: the image featured herein was procured from and courtesy of Wired magazine via the same article cited within as source material for this story.