“Isn’t that beautiful? I think it’s stunning!”

20 years after Steve Jobs’ “perfect” computer

On the 20th anniversary of the Power Mac G4 Cube, Steven Levy of Wired looks back at the interview he did with Steve Jobs at the launch. A couple highlights:

Knowing I was risking his ire, I asked him: Just who was going to buy this? Jobs didn’t miss a beat. “That’s easy!” he said. “A ton of people who are pros. Every designer is going to buy one.”

Here was his justification for violating his matrix theory: “We realized there was an incredible opportunity to make something in the middle, sort of a love child, that was truly a breakthrough,” he said. The implicit message was that it was so great that people would alter their buying patterns to purchase one.

They did not, of course. Not only did “every designer” not buy one, very few did. And very few of anyone did. It was just too expensive, too impractical, and far too expensive. I recall a friend getting one back then and my reaction was almost an exact mixture of wonderment and bemusement. The thing was without question beautiful. A true jewel of a computer. It not only made my big beige beast of a PC look ugly, it made it look neolithic. At the same time, the thing had some comical bugs or just weird design quirks. The hand-wave to power on thing was the source of some great laughs as it worked like magic, if magic was solely a bad thing.

In any case, the G4 Cube failed to push buttons on the computer-buying public. Jobs told me it would sell millions. But Apple sold fewer than 150,000 units. The apotheosis of Apple design was also the apex of Apple hubris. Listening to the tape, I was struck by how much Jobs had been drunk on the elixir of aesthetics. “Do you really want to put a hole in this thing and put a button there?” Jobs asked me, justifying the lack of a power switch. “Look at the energy we put into this slot drive so you wouldn’t have a tray, and you want to ruin that and put a button in?”

But here is something else about Jobs and the Cube that speaks not of failure but why he was a successful leader. Once it was clear that his Cube was a brick, he was quick to cut his losses and move on.

Levy’s entire summary (and original article for Newsweek) is well worth the read (for the outtakes as well — he asked about the idea of Jobs becoming CEO of Disney!), but this last bit above is the key. It’s clear from the chat that Jobs loved this machine. And yet, when it was clear he had not only miscalculated its potential, but that he was flat-out wrong, he didn’t hesitate to walk away. Quickly. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world to do; it is not.