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But I Digress...
by Doc Hillman

Apple's Greatest Conundrum
September 1st, 2000

Every week, I tend to get bombarded. Luckily, it's not rocks that someone throws at me, and it's not tomatoes thrown by an audience of drunken college kids looking for a slightly better night of improv than Conan and I were able to provide them with. Actually, that never really happened, because when it came to Conan, I was the world's greatest fool. After selecting him for an improv company I was directing in LA, I decided that he was a more selfish player than I was ready to see working on-stage at that point. Call me the guy that didn't cast Conan. But I did cast Kudrow. Matthew Perry? I blew that one. Imagine telling him at 17 that he didn't get the part in Sound of Music.

But I digress.

Conan and Matthew are the kind of conundrum I face. Apple Computer faces a far different conundrum each and every day, and I'm spending more than a little time wondering about the same. My weekly MacZone catalogue arrived with the Cube splashed all over the cover of the glossy come-on. "Here it is! The next great thing that you've got to have!" For the iMac, that one took me hook line and sinker. The Cube however, has left me cold and wondering about the choices that Apple has to make these days.

Take a look at the iMac. A long hard look. A couple of years ago, this computer was truly revolutionary, or so it seemed. What though, was the revolution all about? Aside from the fact that the design was extraordinary, we were not looking at a computer that was really expanding the notion of what a computer could be. Apple worked hard to make us believe that, but in reality, the iMac was, and remains, a well designed classic Apple item that runs the Mac OS with ease. They brought USB to the forefront, and FireWire, and DVD drives make things grand, but they are a novelty on an iMac. The visible screen doesn't make for a great viewing experience unless you nestle up against the screen. On an iBook, that's different. There at least you have the option of toting a film with you on a plane, or staying pretty quiet watching The Green Mile while your wife is downstairs trying to sleep.

But I digress.

The Apple conundrum is simple and vexing. As a hardware company, how do they continue to sell computers year in and year out to the same people that have bought them over and over again? That's not an easy trick. Granted, I've been through 2 iMacs, a Pismo, and am still running a Performa 450 (honestly) a Centris 650, and don't turn down the LC II's that the school willingly thrusts at me. However, I am generally spending someone else's money to feed my Macintosh Jones, and that's getting to be a tougher sell these days.

The Cube doesn't make it any easier. As I looked at the specs again, I fully realized that I could purchase a more powerful machine for less that didn't come in a cube (or with speakers.) So why did they come up with the Cube in the first place? Call it fishing tackle mentality. There's an old adage that lures are not sold to catch fish- they are generally sold to catch fisherman. If you know anything about fishing, or watched infomercials during the past few years, you've seen helicopter lures, flying lures, sluggos, and a thousand other baits that promise that bass will jump onto your line. Well, that's hogwash. Bass are so stupid that they'll eat dentures if they are hungry. They strike on instinct.

But I digress.

Apple is counting on us to be caught by the lure (or perhaps I should say allure) that they present to us. And if anyone strikes on instinct, its the diehard Mac user. The Cube doesn't do much that any Apple can't do except be really small. Really small. So, they do what they are best at doing. Apple keeps the wraps on this thing until they can introduce it with a bang at July's Expo. How many people got caught? Probably more than a few. Of course the best part is that when you get caught by Apple, you don't really get screwed too badly. Regardless of the lure they get you to bite, it's still going to work really well. Really, really well. I am sure that in many ways, the Cube lives up to its promise of being an extraordinary piece of design.

But what does Apple keep on doing? Things that are cool don't stay that way forever, and the iMac and Cube aren't going to be sexy in a few years. Sooner or later, the iMac is going to look overgrown, just like fins did on a Cadillac. For a while, they were great, but eventually, they wore out their welcome. Look at the Mazda Miata- it was a huge hit when it came out, but it started a return to roadsters. Even the charming Miata ends up looking long in the tooth. I still won't turn one down, but the Boxter has my car lust now.

But I digress.

Cars might be the best metaphor here. They've got to upgrade the look constantly, as well as the drive train. More importantly though, they've got to make them run more efficiently. Same with Macs. The Cube wins on style, but just doesn't make the leap that Apple needs at this point. Of course I could be dead wrong, but here's at least one bet that the Cube doesn't feature prominently in the Apple line in the coming years. As a result, the "new, new thing" is already on the drawing board. Probably the new, new, new thing too.

If you've got a Cube, enjoy, but remember that your company is already lusting after your money. Oh. How about a sphere? That would be revolutionary design (even though they are all over the universe.)

OS X is the revolution baby. That's what I'm waiting on. Big time.

Your comments are welcomed.

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Dr. Tim Hillmanis a long time contributor to the Mac community through his work with MacCentral, MacOPINION, and most recently MacOS Daily.

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