Columns From: 11/1/2000 Automotive Design & Production,


There it was, pictured in an ad in Fast Company. I'd never seen it before. I'd never even heard of it. I stopped flipping the pages of the magazine. I was excited. It was morning and I was at work. Normally, I'd still be half-asleep, working my way through half a pot of coffee. But now my heart was racing. The coffee could get cold for all I cared. I rushed into Editor-in-chief Gary Vasilash's office, pointing at the two-page spread, eyes aglow.

As Gary put it, I was "gobsmacked." And I just don't get gobsmacked; I'm not the type to buy into the vanity of consumer culture. But there it was, perhaps the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen, and I wanted to tear the advertisement out and tape it to the wall of my office. My brain was telling me that it's just a damn computer. "But," I mumbled in my state of euphoria, "it's the coolest computer ever."

Funny thing is, this is the exact same phrase that Steve Jobs used to describe the PowerMac G4 Cube when he unveiled it back in July. But my point isn't just that this new computer leaves me weak-kneed, but rather that Apple has designed yet another truly revolutionary machine. How revolutionary? Consider: (1) it's the first entirely digital consumer-market computer; (2) it's cooled without a fan, which makes it virtually silent; (3) it's all housed in that 7-in. square box; and (4) just look at the damn thing! Coming on the heels of the iMac and iBook, the Cube makes it clear that Apple is pursuing a product strategy that puts design first. While other computer companies are content to push out more gray plastic that's little different than the computers of yore (save for faster chips and more memory), Apple is redefining what a computer is. Where the iMac is décor and the iBook fashion, the Cube is clearly art.

So the obvious question is who's doing this sort of amazing work in the auto industry? (And before you e-mail me a list of concept cars like the 021C that will never see the light of day, or try to tell me that the P.T. Cruiser'severything-old-is-new-again styling is "revolutionary," let me just remind you that Apple is selling millions of iMacs and will sell a similarly staggering number of Cubes. These are not niche computers, but mainstream models that have saved tiny Apple from extinction at the hands of the 500-pound Wintel gorilla.)

Given the public's general disinterest in the parts of a vehicle that remain largely unseen and these parts' growing similarity to one another regardless of vehicle, it seems that someone in the auto industry would be primed and ready to reinvent the idea of what a car is, what it looks like, and how it functions, just in the name of creating distinction. But rather, I see more conventional hunks of metal and plastic that bear far too much similarity to one another. If Apple can redefine the inherently geeky computer, putting it into such terms that the prevailing geeky evaluations (largely revolving around numbers like processing speed and megabytes of memory) are rendered irrelevant just because of design, why can't someone do similarly for the automobile?