Return of the Compact Mac

by Anakin Onesimus

SE/30 and G4 Cube

Macs have come in many "form factors" over the years, from "pizza boxes" like the LC to full six-slot towers like the 9600. However, many admirers of the Macintosh would doubtless agree that the proper, "canonical" shape for a Mac is the compact all-in-one form introduced with the original (128k) Macintosh in 1984 and surviving in modified form until the Color Classic went out of production in 1994 (or, in a few lucky countries, the Color Classic II in 1995). Subsequent all-in-one machines built around larger CRTs than the 9" or 10" units of the true Compact Macs, even the present iMacs, somehow don't feel as complete as the old Compact Macs, and they haven't inspired the devotion that causes otherwise reasonable people to stuff G3 hardware into boxes never designed for anything more powerful than a 68030 processor. The new G4 Cube, as shown in the photo above, is even smaller than the traditional compact form (here exemplified by an SE/30), and it certainly has that same feeling of completeness, of unitarity; however, the necessary external monitor (beautiful though the current models are!) spoils this feeling for the true lover of Compact Macs.

Your Correspondent has learned that these die-hards will soon have reason to rejoice, as they will once again be able to purchase a true Compact Mac new from Apple. Since the introduction at MWNY 2000 of the G4 Cube, there has been much discussion on the Mac web about its intended market, with the consensus developing that the "third column" in the Apple product matrix will be aimed at executives who want something more sober than the iMac/iBook "consumer" column but who don't need the expandability and sheer size of the PowerMac and PowerBook in the "professional" column. (This has also led to speculation that the sixth cell, in the "executive" column under the "portable" row, will hold the first Apple subnotebook since the demise of the 2400c.) However, the Cube's required external monitor, even a flat-panel device, adds significant clutter to that oak desktop, and sources say that in fact the Cube was originally intended to have been released with a small flat-panel monitor built right into its case! The 9" diagonal would be the same as the viewable-area diagonal of the Color Classic and Color Classic II, though of course the Cube would retain the external video ports to attach a larger monitor for those with poor eyesight or a desire for more than 640x480 pixels. (Upgrading the Color Classic monitor to this from its stock 512x384-pixel resolution is a standard hack for enthusiasts, and they can attest that 640x480 is enough for many purposes.) Given the "luggability" of the original compact Macs at 16.5 pounds, it is also remotely possible that the 14-pound Cube would be considered light enough with a built-in screen to fill both the desktop and portable cells in the "third column"! However, that would require a definition other than "executive" for the column, since no self-respecting executive would "lug" anything to a board meeting.

Bear in mind that Steve Jobs was the driving force behind the lack of internal expansion options, or even a simple way of opening the case, on the earliest compact Macs; the complete lack of PCI slots and extra drive bays in the Cube is a return to this philosophy, though he has relented to the extent of making the hard drive and RAM easy to upgrade. This compromise is, in fact, the main reason that the G4 Cube was released as a "headless iMac" with no monitor rather than as a new compact Mac with a small one built in: the necessity of making the case openable in this elegant package created great difficulties in connecting the screen, which was inlaid into the transparent shell, to the electronics in the inner cube. On one webpage, Apple boasts about having connected the Airport "patch" antennae to the inner electronics box without wires that would have detracted from the visual purity of the transparent case, and that would have had to be unplugged before lifting out the insides; such a wireless connection for the video signal could not be developed in time to show at MWNY, and the design team was unwilling to compromise by allowing a cable to run from the video port on the bottom to the screen in the outer case. Your Correspondent has been unable to confirm rumors that additional delay was caused by a decision to use the ink-jet- or screen-printable Light-Emitting Polymer technology that was recently announced, instead of a conventional LCD, for the display.

So, again, to whom will the new Compact Mac be marketed? It will certainly appeal to all the executives and lovers of elegant function who will make the current Cube a sales hit, and will also bring in others who don't want their desks dominated by the large computer monitor they will now be able to dispense with. In addition, it will find use in the same applications where the SE/30 is popular to this day, serving as a light-duty server or router on a shelf or in a closet without requiring an external monitor to sit there with it. However, the rumored moniker of the upcoming machine offers a clue to the true target market: the code name C3, pronounced as either "see-three" or "see-cubed," will have resonance with those traditionalists who for years have ached to see either a Classic III or a Color Classic Cubed ("CCC" or "C cubed"). Thus we may speculate that the "third column" of the product matrix is "traditionalist" rather than "executive" in focus.

Many thanks to Monika Mohler and Ron Ustach of Apple for letting me set my SE/30 next to the Cube they brought to display at my place of employment, to shoot the photo at top. Needless to say, they are not the sources of these rumors!

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new 24 August 2000

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