Apple bets consumers are ready for cubist movement

The company's new PowerMac G4 Cube computer, on display today at Macworld in New York, follows the iMac and the iBook as the latest spin on blending industrial design and computer power.

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NEW YORK--Are consumers ready to roll with the Cube? We'll soon find out.

Apple's new PowerMac G4 Cube computer, on display today at the Macworld Expo in New York, follows the iMac and the iBook as the company's latest spin on blending industrial design and computer power. The Cube will feature a half-inch-thick clear enclosure, smooth surfaces and a cooling vent on the top that allows the unit to forgo a fan.

The company will begin shipping the machines in August. The price tag starts at $1,799.

Although Apple has

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succeeded with stylized computers before, the model will be an interesting test of both Apple's ability to craft exciting designs and the staying power of the aesthetic revolution in computing.

Stylized computers inevitably cost more to make because, among other reasons, the enclosures need to be specially fabricated. Divining the public taste can be a difficult art. Dell Computer and Compaq Computer recently killed off stylish but poor-selling PCs. Even Apple has seen differences in public response to different colors of the iMac.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has attempted cubes before. Next, the company he founded after unceremoniously leaving Apple years ago, featured cube-shaped computers, but they foundered in the market. Tthe company eventually found success when Apple bought it in 1996, however.

Although a desktop computer, the computing part of the PowerMac Cube will technically not sit on a desktop. The computing unit itself is an eight-inch cube with white metal sides. This unit is suspended in a clear plastic terrarium-like structure.

Below the computing unit is air. By having an ambient air chamber beneath the computer, the computer creates its own circulation and effectively cools itself. Sony uses a similar design technique on its Vaio notebooks.

As a result, the Cube doesn't need a fan, unlike many desktops, making it quieter than most computers.

"It works like a chimney," Apple vice president Phil Schiller said in an interview.

Attendees at the show gave the new design a thumbs-up.

"The Cube is amazing," said Beryl Furlong, a Mac reseller who traveled to the show from Ireland. "It's just so small, and I love the way you lift it up."

Furlong was referring to the fact that opening the Cube's case is as simple as flipping it upside down and grabbing a pullout handle that separates the internal components from the white metal case.

Schiller said Apple has been working on the Cube for about 18 months, with all of the design work done in-house. He called the Cube a blend of the PowerMac's performance and the iMac's simplicity, crediting the colorful consumer model with helping Apple to see the potential for the Cube.

"It sounds trite, but we learned a lot from the iMac," he said, noting the cooling challenges.

Bill Liberman, who works for Creative Technology, a Toronto-based reseller, said the Cube will be a great presentation unit, while the "grunts" in the office are likely to stick with a PowerMac.

"I see the Cube going to creative directors," Liberman said. "It's a status thing. The more powerful machines will go to the designers."

David Vogler, a vice president with Nickelodeon Online, said he likes the Cube but wonders where it will fit into Apple's product line.

"I'm not quite sure who the audience is," Vogler said.

Schiller said the machine should appeal to professionals who want to work at home on a powerful machine but don't need the expandability offered by the standard tower configuration for PCs.

Gerard Klauer Mattison analyst David Bailey said earlier today that he thought the machine would appeal to high-end consumers and some small businesses, without eating into the existing PowerMac line.

"I don't think it's going to cannibalize their current product line," Bailey said.

While acknowledging the new product was visually appealing, Vogler worried that professional users would clutter it with add-ons such as Zip drives.

"I'm afraid all the elegance with the flat panel and all will be ruined," Vogler said. Still, Vogler, a longtime Mac buyer, said he was likely to buy it.

"It's just so gorgeous and so elegant," Vogler said, noting that the machine is reminiscent of the "warp cores" from "Star Trek."

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Although Vogler can order his machine today, he, like everyone else, will have to wait until next month for Apple to start shipping. The 450-MHz unit, which sells for $1,799, will be available through both resellers and the Apple Web site, while the 500-MHz version for $2,499 is available only online through Apple.

Matt Sargent, an analyst with ARS, said Apple has a good shot at success with the Cube. Mac buyers have shown with the iMac that they are attracted to novel design and are willing to pay the premium, however slight, that comes with manufacturing unusually shaped computers. By contrast, Dell and Compaq, which both recently stopped marketing stylized PCs in the United States, aim for a general market dominated by price concerns.

The cubical enclosure will add manufacturing costs, Sargent added, but the expense will be marginal in the overall cost of the systems.

"There are some incremental costs in making the enclosure, but looking at the price points Apple is aiming for, that is going to be minimal," he said.