Second Coming of the Cube? Don't Hold Your Breath

Monday, 2003-12-08; 14:49:00

Recent editorials have surfaced as to why Apple should resurrect the cube: only one scenario will ever come true.

(Originally posted on AppleXnet)

Lately, there have been some articles such as this which center on the long-discontinued G4 Cube. These editorials usually advocate that Apple's product line is lacking either 1) a very cheap, headless Mac or 2) a relatively cheap, headless G5. Since the cube, they say, could fit either of these bills quite nicely, the cube should be resurrected again as one of Apple's main product lines.

News flash: nothing has changed in the market since Apple discontinued the cube. Apple as a company hasn't changed its policies, and the market hasn't increased demand for a cube-like product. The cube, as we know it, is dead, and will never be resurrected.

The first recommendation for a cube reintroduction is as a cheap, headless Mac that is powerful enough to do normal day-to-day tasks, but is cheap enough to compete with the PCs out there priced around $500. But I have to ask the question: does anyone really believe that Apple would introduce such a product? Has there EVER been a period in Apple's entire lifetime that it has mass-produced a cheap Mac? No! Apple has always been a company that produces innovative products but at a premium up-front price. Their profit margins on almost all of their products (including the iPod) have been around 25%. So there's no logic in thinking that Apple will just buck this trend out of the blue by introducing a product that has razor-thin profit margins. That's not Apple's style.

Furthermore, introducing a cheap headless Mac would be a pointless move for Apple. You can already buy used G3-based Macs for only a couple hundred dollars. And given that the G3 doesn't have a vector processor which helps in many CPU-intensive tasks like video editing, a G3 isn't that powerful beside similarly-clocked G4-based products. Apple isn't going to re-introduce a G3-based product anyway, now that the last bastion of Apple's product line has succumbed to the G4 processor. Apple wants to be seen as a company that innovates in all the products it creates, because that's the only way it can survive and make a profit. That means that a cheap G3-based cube is out of the question.

How about a cheap G4-based cube? That scenario isn't likely either. There's relatively little room in Apple's product line for such a cube. Already there is a cheap G4-based Mac that even has a built-in monitor: the eMac. Why would anyone want to buy a headless Mac and a monitor to go with it when they can just buy an eMac? Monitor expandability? That's bogus. No one is going to buy a cheap headless cube just so they can use better monitors. Such a consumer would likely be a technophile that wants the latest and greatest -- i.e.: a G5. A regular consumer that doesn't have need for the power of the G5 is not going to have need for monitor expandability either, so an eMac or iMac would fit the bill perfectly. The cube is left out in the cold once again, because certainly at least the eMac would be cheaper.

Just take a look at what happened when the G4-based cube WAS actually released. Almost no one bought it! And this is when there was NO G4-based iMac or G4-based eMac. While it was priced at $1799 ($100 more than the cheapest G4 tower at the time), the price eventually was dropped to $1299, and CD-RW and faster graphics card options were added. Still, no one bought the cube. If demand had picked up after the price drops, Apple would not have made the decision to discontinue the cube.

So why do people think that there is space for a cube with an even more crowded desktop lineup? In fact, the current G4-based iMac IS the cube. Look at the target markets: the iMac is targeted toward those who are "prosumers", i.e.: those who don't have the money or need to buy the latest and greatest, but want to do professional-grade work like video editing. The cube was targeted toward the prosumer market: it was a small G4-based Mac that was supposed to be cheaper than the tower, and offer less expandability. The iMac is the same: it has a relatively small footprint, it has a G4, and it's cheaper than the current top-of-the-line G5 towers. The G4 iMac is simply a successful cube. There's no denying this fact. The only reason that the G4 iMac is actually successful is because it has better integration. The G4 iMac has both a built-in monitor and a built-in power supply, rather than the external brick and monitor that the G4 Cube required. So overall, the G4 iMac actually IS cheaper and smaller than a tower in practice, whereas the cube didn't offer nearly as much savings in cost OR size -- if you bought a cube, you may as well have bought a tower.

In fact, I was one of the "prosumers" that bought a G4 Cube. I was looking for what the G4 Cube supposedly offered: cheap power. I got the 450 MHz model (with a 16 MB ATI Rage 128 Pro graphics card), and a 15" Apple Studio Display. It cost around $3000, including the cube itself, the studio display, the AppleCare enrollment plan, and tax. I had no need for the expandability of the G4 tower, and I didn't want such a huge computer. So the cube was perfect for me, even at it's expensive price point. But there weren't many consumers like me who felt the same way. Call us cube owners suckers, but the fact is that we love our cubes. However, that doesn't change the fact that no one ELSE wanted them.

Of course, there's always the idea of an actual G5-based cube. That makes no sense either, because there still aren't very many people who will buy a G5-based cube over a G5 tower. Besides, Apple wouldn't price the G5-based cube much lower than the low-end G5 tower, which is already fairly cheap at $1799 ($1599 was the lowest price point ever for a new G4 tower). So a G5-based cube would be in exactly the same position as the actual G4 Cube was -- that is, it would be discontinued after a year and a half of dismal sales.

There may be those out there who want a very cheap headless Mac or a cheap G5. For both, I would recommend either eBay or the online Apple Store's list of refurbished products. On eBay, you can usually find someone who's selling 1 or 2 year old Macs for only a few hundred bucks. If you want more powerful Macs, you can even get a refurbished G5 for $1499. But don't hold your breath for a G5 cube anytime soon. It just won't happen.

Yet, before writing the cube off entirely, there is one thing that just might be the cube's saving grace: fanaticism. The enthusiasm of cube owners for their cubes is at such a level that's even abnormal for Apple enthusiasts. Sonnet Technologies has 1.4 GHz G4 upgrades for the cube. There are whole websites dedicated to upgrading and using G4 Cubes. Wired News even did an article on the lengths to which cube owners will go to keep their cubes current with the latest technologies.

Given this, the only viable way for the cube to ever be reintroduced as an actual Apple product is as a limited edition rerelease. The design of the G4 Cube, complete with it's "nuclear reactor" way of installing upgraded components, was indeed something beautiful. And being a limited edition, Apple could price it as high as it wanted and it would still find buyers. Since the 20th anniversary of the actual Macintosh (not the company) is coming up this January, it may not be a stretch to speculate that Apple will introduce a Cube LE. After all, Apple itself left that door open, and when before has that ever happened?

-- simX

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