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ATPM 7.07
July 2001




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Apple Cider: Random Squeezings From a Mac User

by Tom Iovino,

Cube Down the Tube?

My kids are totally awesome.

I mean that sincerely.

They go beyond the mere physical manifestation of my hopes, dreams, and wishes. They are so much more than the loving, caring little people that I am entrusted with.

One of their best traits is that they serve as living, breathing experiments of mass consumerism. In other words, they are complete suckers for the first slick ad that comes on the TV.

I am getting my first taste of this with my three-year-old son. He’ll be watching the latest episode of—say—Rugrats on Nickelodeon, thoroughly entranced with the antics of Tommy, Chuckie, Phil, and Lil, then his eyes will glaze over. He’ll drool on the arm of the easy chair. I have to physically shake him to break his intense concentration and get him to recognize that he has forgotten to tell me that he had to go to the potty. In other words, he gets hooked.

Once the commercials come on, though, he’s another kid altogether. Cue the music, bring on the excited announcer barking about the latest and greatest features of the new and improved toy, and show a group of kids playing with it. He’ll perk up immediately, and start bouncing with excitement at the thought that whatever is being advertised has got to be the coolest thing on the planet. He’s even asked me to get him a Barbie doll because he liked the commercial.

Hey, I can’t blame the little guy. I was the exact same way growing up. Many’s the Saturday morning you would find me glued to the set watching hours of cartoons. Heck, you can still find me, mouth agape, every Saturday morning watching the New Yankee Workshop.

The one product I simply had to have back then was the Rubik’s Cube. Yeah, that thing was awesome. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do with it, and all of my friends told me that I wasn’t going to enjoy having one—unless, of course, I enjoyed being thoroughly frustrated by not being able to figure it out.

“To heck with them,” I thought. After all, that multi-colored cube with the maddening number of combinations that required an intensely skilled mind to solve was all over the place. My friends had ’em, they were on TV ads, they were being written about in the paper, you weren’t cool if you didn’t have one…. I just had to have one!

That’s the reaction that Apple was hoping for when they released their Cube last July. The wildly successful, unorthodox looks of the iMac, iBook, and G3/G4 lines encouraged Steve Jobs and the design team at Apple to come up with another fantastic looking machine with the belief that if you build it snazzy, people will line up with cash in hand to walk off with a copy.

And, it’s tough to fault them for thinking outside the box. The Cube was revolutionary as it didn’t need a fan for cooling its components: its design allowed air movement just like a chimney to vent the warm air. The thick, clear polycarbonate outer shell with the components suspended in a white metal box looked as futuristic as 2001: A Space Odyssey did in 1968.

And, the machines were plenty powerful when they rolled out. A 450 or 500 MHz G4 processor, capacity to go as high as 1.5 GB of RAM, and a 1 MB backside cache made the Cube something to be reckoned with.

The only thing that the Cupertino Gang failed to plan for was just how the Cube fit into the marketing plan.

Again, I go back to how Apple was pulled out of the morass it was in when Jobs took the reins of Apple for the second time. Apple was awash in product with such illuminating names as the Performa 6116CD. By drastically slashing the product line and refocusing Apple’s hardware efforts into four key product lines:

by reducing their inventory and making it far easier for customers to order a new Mac, Apple ran more efficiently. And with this efficiency comes an improved perception among investors, which leads to a rise in stock price, then to more profitability, and so on, and so on, and so on.

The G3 and later G4 models satisfied the first segment; the PowerBooks handled the second. The iMacs filled the gap on the third, and the iBooks the fourth. Sticking to the simple, straightforward plan is exactly what Apple still needs to do to maintain its competitive edge—which is something I knew way back when. But the Cube always baffled me. It didn’t seem to fit into any one of the segments Apple drew up during its recovery.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only person to question the niche Apple was attempting to fill with the Cube. David Vogler, a vice president with Nickelodeon Online, said at last year’s Macworld Expo that he liked the Cube but wondered where it would fit into Apple’s product line. “I’m not quite sure who the audience is,” he said.

So, what has been the fallout from the introduction of the Cube? It’s sad to say, but sales figures have fallen flat on their faces. In February of this year, Steve Jobs even admitted that he had expected sales figures to be three times higher than they had been.

Now, Apple is faced with a decision as to the future of the Cube. And it seems as if the Cube may be going down the tube. According to a report by CNET, resellers are noticing that Apple’s distributors are running out of Cubes for customers—an indication that Apple is preparing to give the Cube the axe.

Can I say that I will miss the Cube? Well, whenever Apple comes out with a new, innovative product, I hope that sales will be good. And, while I’m sure that while the company is on solid financial ground, any failures like this one sap worker morale and make the bean counters a little more skittish about future rollouts.

A few years after I graduated from college, I went back to my childhood home to sort through the many treasures I had left behind when I went to school.

There, at the bottom of a cardboard box, was my old Rubik’s Cube, untouched since the day in 1984 when I threw it there after a particularly frustrating day of trying to solve it. I was simply amazed how that little cube of plastic could have caught my attention the way it did, possessing me so completely with the urge to go out and get one. With its spell on me broken, it was a simple matter for me to throw it out, an unnecessary relic of days gone by.

Will that be the fate of yet another Cube?

• • •

Oh, by the way, next month marks the 50th edition of my Apple Cider column. And not just my 50th, but my 50th consecutive—now I’m starting to feel like Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gherig’s record of most consecutive baseball games.

To celebrate, I’m asking all of the people who have nothing better to do than read Cider to send me your thoughts on the column. They can be about anything—your favorite column, your least favorite column, my most bone-headed prediction—anything that strikes your fancy.

I’ll take the best comments, laugh my fool head off, and make them a part of my 50th column retrospective.

Looking forward to hearing from you for the August column!

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