Thinking Inside The Box

I really do think people judge a book by its cover," says Steve Jobs. The CEO of Apple Computer, decked out in his usual office garb of hiking shorts, black turtleneck and sandals, gazes lovingly at his latest creation, an eight-inch cube suspended in a clear plastic shell. With its austere lines and a supercomputer chip inside, the awkwardly titled Power Mac G4 Cube (whatever happened to naming machines after fruits or daughters?) is a Zen Kleenex box with the kick of Jackie Chan. "When you see something that's so thoughtful on the outside you say, 'Oh, wow, it must be really thoughtful on the inside','' explains Jobs. "And in our case, they're right."

It is a week before last Wednesday's public unveiling of Apple's new line of desktop computers, and Steve Jobs is stretching his charisma muscles. In a two-hour preview for NEWSWEEK, he displays infomercial skills that would put Cher, Chef Emeril and Ron Popeil to shame. He introduces a new set of iMac colors (Indigo! Ruby! and Snow, which looks like the inside of a light bulb). The entry-level model is now priced at $800, low enough for Santa to buy a sleighful. Jobs professes contrition at having foisted Apple's ergonomically abominable "hockey puck" mouse on customers for the last three years, and unveils its gleaming replacement, a cozy device that uses sophisticated optical tracking, dispensing with the ball. He explains how newly juiced-up professional models will now have two speedy G4 processors running in tandem for faster performance, a sure pleaser for the Photoshop jockeys in Apple's core markets. He edits clips and creates effects on the latest rev of Apple's iMovie software, a tool that allows cinematic naifs to make birthday-party footage look like "Godfather 2." Then, describing the process as a revolution not seen since the Bastille ("No other company in the world can do this! This is why we come to work the morning!"), he posts the movie to a Web site, a service Apple offers free to customers.

By the time he pulls back the sheet on the G4 Cube, his intensity gauge has hit the red zone. If computer customers indeed judge books by their covers--and are willing to pay a premium for high style--the $1,800 Cube will hit the best-seller list.

It better. Without a steady stream of innovative products Apple can't survive. Even though three years of Jobs rule has been a period of triumph for Apple and its prodigal cofounder--the company just racked up its 11th straight profitable quarter, quite a feat for a place that was one step from the liquidators in 1996--the dark clouds haven't totally lifted from Cupertino, Calif. Last week a Media Metrix survey claimed that there were actually fewer Macintosh households in 2000 than the year before. Though Apple's profit margins were up 43 percent in the third quarter, the company announced last week, iMac sales fell 50,000 short of expectations. And while Jobs keeps introducing new goodies, perhaps the most important one of all--OS X, the new software that will revitalize the creaky Mac operating system--won't be officially released until 2001. (A "public beta"--geek talk for "don't blame us if it crashes"--is expected in September.)

Jobs brushes off these portents; he's playing a different game. While the industry at large believes the action lies in exotic software schemes to leverage the possibilities of the Internet and a galaxy of non-PC devices, he is almost alone in insisting that there's plenty to be done with desktop computers, particularly at Apple, which uniquely controls not only all the computer features but the software that operates it.

No one else has managed to successfully package design innovations like Apple has. In the wake of the 1997 iMac's success (3.7 million sold so far) a number of PC makers attempted to jump on the style bandwagon by offering jazzy alternatives to their deadly dull beige boxes. Dell rolled out a "Web PC" with a blue, hourglass-shaped tower. Compaq featured a flat-panel Presario 3500 and Gateway introduced its iMac look-alike Astro. All but the latter have been discontinued, and that one's on life support. (Gateway's Peter Ashkin won't certify its demise, but says with a sigh that the Astro's September debut "seems like so long ago." Time doesn't fly when you're not having fun.) Though PC makers like IBM and Sony are still committed to nontraditional design, "everything we see indicated that it may not be the primary consideration [for buyers]," says Lee Green, IBM's director of corporate identity.

Steve Jobs has his own explanation for the deflated boomlet. "What's happening is that these people built lousy products--and they failed!" he says. "The thing that all our competitors are missing is that they think it's about fashion. And that couldn't be farther from the truth. They say, 'We'll slap some color on this piece-of-junk computer and we'll have one, too!'"

To Jobs, the point is to make a computer so perfect both outside and in that it satisfies the toughest customer imaginable: himself. And the culmination of his own desires seems to be the G4 Cube. The idea for the product, he says, came "from a user--it was me. I wanted the [flat-panel] Cinema display but I don't need the features of the PowerMac." Though teams of engineers worked on it and the development was overseen by Apple design guru Jonathan Ive, the Cube conforms to some of Job's long-held obsessions. He is a minimalist--at various times his homes have been marked by a monastic lack of furniture--and the Cube's lines are unpolluted by visual static. No buttons stick out: the machine senses your finger when you press the "on" spot, and CD drives drop into a slot like a Pop-Tart. No aural pollution, either--despite the densely packed components, a central "heat sink" cools the machine by convection, eliminating the need for a fan. "We make progress by eliminating things, by removing the superfluous," Jobs says. "Would you really want to put a hole in this thing and put a button there?"

Jobs has gotten a lot of mileage from colors. But the G4 Cube's most striking visual effect is transparency, in its shell and its components like the optical mouse and crystal-ball-like speakers. 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. "We were defining details on a chemical level," says Ive. "It's a sign of where we are as a company that we don't have debates on whether it's an appropriate use of energy to get the right tolerances, to get exactly the right color."

Steve Jobs can go on for quite a while about what he calls "the coolest computer ever." About the way you can flip the machine upside down and pull out the innards. Or about the magnetically coupled ceramic connections to the built-in antenna so the machine can hook up to the Net with Apple's wireless Airport system. But when you ask exactly which customers are going to spend $2,800 for the Cube system (including the $1,000 15-inch flat-panel Studio display), the supersalesman's answer is less than compelling. He mentions that all the designers who have seen it want one, and guesses that lots of people who would ordinarily buy an iMac will want to spend "the few extra bucks"--actually more than twice the iMac's price--to have such an object of desire. "We absolutely think this is going to be huge," he says.

The initial reaction to Apple's latest creation seems encouraging. At last week's Macworld Expo in New York, Jobs, this time wearing jeans with the black turtleneck, formally introduced the Cube to more than 4,000 Mac fanatics, some of whom had been lining up since dawn. (Almost 100,000 more were rubbernecking on a simultaneous Webcast.) They went berserk. The tech press seconded their enthusiasm, and even some of the technosnobs at Slashdot.org, a Web site catering to aficionados of the Linux system, expressed outright lust for the newest new thing. It looks like the coolest-looking computer ever just might keep Steve Jobs and Apple sailing along--until the next product launch.