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Saturday, 22 July, 2000, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
Thinking outside the box

Apple fans are fawning over the new little G4 Cube, which follows its all-conquering iMac. But why must PC users still put up with the boring old beige box? By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

The dilemma is this: you are a PC user with a passing eye for good design who happens to need a new computer.

It's hardly an unlikely scenario.

But the search for a suitable box of tricks may not be straightforward. In the past, PC devotees who wanted their computer to meld seamlessly with a designer lifestyle have had to make the switch to Apple.

The Cube
Apple's new object of desire: The Cube
And three years after the launch of the oh-so-chic iMac, the same is still largely true.

In New York this week, Apple unveiled its latest cool creation. Called the Cube, it packs all the punch of a G4 processor into a neat and natty-looking 8-inch square box.

With its half-inch-thick clear case, rounded surfaces and cooling vent on the top, which allows the unit to forego a fan, the design is quintessential Apple.

In "PC land" though, users must still make do with their tried, tested and tired old beige boxes.

The discrepancy is all the more puzzling when you consider what a phenomenal success the iMac has been.

Fish PC
iMac lookalike? The Australian Fish PC
Apple has sold more than 3.7 million of the machines. It is widely credited with reviving the fortunes of what had been a flagging company.

Offered in a range of pastel colours and encased in translucent plastic, the iMac is a head-turner; its own best advertisement. You would think in the overcrowded world of PCs, manufacturers would be clambering over each other to earn a similar level of product recognition.

In fact, some PC makers have tried to emulate the Apple formula, although sometimes rather too obviously.

Apple has come down hard on companies which it believes have simply cloned the iMac style around a PC processor.

Selling beige boxes isn't sustainable as far as the consumer is concerned

Neil Stevens, Tiny Computers
It has been granted injunctions against several, and is reportedly now looking into a new iMac lookalike, made by Australian computer firm Fish.

"The sad thing is that when people have tried to do something different in the way of design they can only manage poor imitations of the iMac," says Clive Grinyer, head of product design at TAG McLaren Audio.

He accuses the copyists of seeing design as a "bolt-on" rather than being a consideration right from the start.

iMac's sweetener

"When Apple were putting together the iMac they went to great lengths, which even meant talking to boiled sweet manufacturers to see how they maintained vibrant colours in a translucent form.

Three-year-old granddaddy of them all - the iMac
"The irony is that the effort at the beginning is relatively cheap when you compare it to an advertising budget, but the effect can be amazing."

Certainly, some PC makers realise they are not pulling their weight design-wise.

Neil Stevens, director of that most devout purveyor of beige boxes, Tiny Computers, recently admitted the industry was doing a "bad job in terms of innovation".

Tried, but failed

"Selling beige boxes isn't sustainable as far as the consumer is concerned. [In] the traditional PC industry, nobody's doing great stuff. Apple are the only people who have made computing a different experience," he said.

Some big name manufacturers have tried to step out of the mainstream, with varying degrees of success.

Compaq recently said it was pulling the plug on its sleek, dark blue Presario 3500, from all markets except Japan, although on Wednesday it announced a new range of colour customisable computers.

IBM's Netvista
IBM's Netvista is more "oaklined boardroom" than the iMac, says Clive Grinyer
Dell has also shelved its WebPC, a small, curved, blue-cased desktop computer that came with an optional flat screen.

Last month, IBM launched its all-in-one Netvista, which, unlike the iMac, comes in a deadly serious matt black.

Mr Grinyer, however, says changing the shape of the box is not enough.

"Often it is just a problem-solving approach rather than an emotional one."

Power matters most

Reacting to the Compaq news, analysts in the US thought the tables had turned against designer PCs. Consumers were siding with computing power rather than fancy colours, they said.

Barry Jenkins, of industrial design consultancy PSD Designs, says "classic beige" will not date like the funky iMac colours.

"There are many factories which do not want to risk their volume sales on something that is only going to be in fashion for a couple of years," he says.

Macally's iMouse. iMac design has had more of an impact on peripherals
"The monkey is on the back of the manufacturer. You've set the agenda and now there's an expectation to do something different."

The analysis may have an uncomfortable ring at Apple headquarters. Latest sales figures for the iMac are down on expectations and some commentators say the novelty is beginning to wane.

Apple fans fawning over the company's dinky new G4 Cube may be disappointed to discover that in design terms, it is not as groundbreaking as they may think.

Experts have highlighted its startling resemblance to the NeXT box, designed by Apple's CEO Steve Jobs while in exile from the company in the late 1980s.

Unfortunately, the NeXT box, a black cube-shaped computer, sold poorly. It was said to be ahead of its time.

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See also:

19 Jul 00 | Business
Apple unveils the 'Cube'
06 Oct 99 | The Company File
Apple unveils new iMac range
16 Feb 00 | Business
Apple - back to the future
14 Jul 99 | The Company File
Apple's comeback: Mirage or reality?
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