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  • The Mac Clone Controversy Rears Its Ugly Head

    April 15th, 2008

    Yes, everything old is new again. This week we hard the story about a certain Florida IT company that is evidently planning to sell home-built Intel-based computers that will supposedly run Mac OS X Leopard.

    Now before I tell you more about the alleged clone, let's go back in time to the last decade and explore some of the previous Mac cloning attempts, both official and otherwise.

    Back when the original Mac Portable was oversized and underperforming, a third-party company came up with the Outbound Portable, a nine-pound notebook that used real Mac ROMs to provide a genuine Apple user experience and run the latest system software. Evidently they got around a possible Apple intellectual properly lawsuit originally by requiring the owner handle the ROM transfer process.

    For a while, Outbounds were embraced by thousands of Mac users looking for a better portable computing experience, until the real PowerBooks came along and essentially sent the imitation out to pasture.

    Later on, after being urged for years to clone the Mac, Apple did it officially, and the short-lived Mac OS compatible industry was born. Alas, perhaps because the contracts were badly written, such clone startups as Power Computing went after Apple's own core customers with a vengeance. They basically put a genuine Mac logic board into a cheap PC box, with accompanying components, and undercut Apple big time on pricing and performance.

    When Steve Jobs arrived, he put the kibosh on this misbegotten enterprise, and the question of cloning didn't arise again until Apple switched to Intel processors. Aha, thought some PC power users! Now it would be easy as pie to run Mac OS X on a home-built PC box, and they did try it, here and there. For the time being, Apple merely tolerated the practice, since the cloning wasn't being done by a real company marketing a real product that held the promise of being Mac compatible.

    The other day, I read the report about a Florida company, PsyStar Corporation, touting their Open Computer, an Intel-based PC that starts at $399.99 but apparently is more powerful than the $599 Mac mini, though not nearly as small or as easy on the eyes. In fact, PsyStar's computer very much resembles a standard PC, which surely brings back memories of those official Mac OS clones of yesteryear.

    By the way, if you have a problem getting to the site, please bear in mind that they've been slammed with traffic since the announcement came out. Evidently the promise of a cheap Mac clone is appealing to lots of you, even its highly unlikely that Apple will allow this company to sell the product for any length of time.

    In any case, here are the specs for the entry-level box:

    • 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500 Processor
    • 2GB of DDR2 667 memory
    • Integrated Intel GMA 950 Graphics
    • 250GB 7200RPM SATA hard drive
    • 20x DVD+/-R SATA drive that is Lightscribe-capable
    • 4 rear USB Ports

    Now let me remind you that a real Mac mini has Mac OS X Leopard installed, and includes FireWire. If you want to add that to the Open Computer, it's another $205, though Leopard is installed free. Don't they call that bait and switch?

    So for an actual purchase price of just $5 more than a Mac mini, you get a speedier processor, a larger, faster hard drive and a superior optical drive. That, of course, omits iLife '08, which is an extra $79, plus a genuine Apple product warranty and what is regarded as the best support in the PC industry.

    However, you can also enhance the Open Computer to include a discrete NVIDIA graphics card, a 2.66GHz processor and an even larger hard drive.

    I suppose this does demonstrate that you can take the core components of a Mac and assemble them in a cheap PC box and undersell Apple. But Apple's EULA prohibits installing Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware. That's something that PsyStar cannot get around. If they actually attempt to distribute this product, it would seem sensible for Apple to take appropriate legal steps to get an injunction and stop this venture cold.

    I'm sure the folks at PsyStar, who claim to be ready for Apple's legal eagles, are aware that the chances of victory are slim to none. But that won't stop them from getting their fifteen minutes of fame. Rest assured that the chances of Apple allowing a new clone program aren't in the cards in the foreseeable future either.

    This doesn't mean Apple shouldn't allow cloning. But it would have to be done in a way that doesn't cannibalize Apple's extremely profitable computer business, and that's going to be a difficult issue, one that Apple is obviously not willing to tackle right now.



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    9 Responses to “The Mac Clone Controversy Rears Its Ugly Head”

    1. Dana Sutton says:

      Here's a link to an interesting Wired article that appraises the legalities of the situation: http://www.wired.com/gadgets/mac/news/2008/04/apple_psystar

      What might be more a more serious challenge to Apple would be a software emulator that would allow OSX to run on at least some qualified PCs. Apple might be able to sue or otherwise hassle individual Leopard purchasers for violation of the EULA, but I don't see how they could sue the developer of the emulator any more than Microsoft could sue the developers of Parallels and VMware Fusion.

    2. Karl says:

      To me the legality of this isn't the issue. I figure Apple will be able to stop production with little effort.

      The issue is, is a market for such a computer finally tempting enough for Apple to dive in? Is there enough demand for Apple to take notice and finally make an expandable computer at a lesser cost to the consumer?

      Can Apple even do that and keep the profit margins where they like'em? Would it help expand Apple's market share?

      I can see the arguments for both sides on why Apple doesn't sell such a computer. But will the buzz around this change their tune?

      I wish I knew.

    3. Phil Holmer says:

      To put the Mac clone idea in perspective, it's important to remember why Steve Jobs ended the Mac clone experiment years ago. Originally Apple thought allowing clones would be a good way to get Windows users and new computer buyers to try out the Apple OS of the day.

      What happened instead was that the clone makers found it easier to market their machines to current Mac users, so that's what they did. When Steve came back it was apparent that the clones were taking away hardware sales from Apple instead of expanding the Mac OS into new territory. That's why Steve killed the clones; Apple was losing money on it.

      I imagine Apple (and Steve in particular) has not forgotten that lesson.

    4. To put the Mac clone idea in perspective, it's important to remember why Steve Jobs ended the Mac clone experiment years ago. Originally Apple thought allowing clones would be a good way to get Windows users and new computer buyers to try out the Apple OS of the day.

      What happened instead was that the clone makers found it easier to market their machines to current Mac users, so that's what they did. When Steve came back it was apparent that the clones were taking away hardware sales from Apple instead of expanding the Mac OS into new territory. That's why Steve killed the clones; Apple was losing money on it.

      I imagine Apple (and Steve in particular) has not forgotten that lesson.

      Exactly. The clone makers nearly killed Apple, and Steve did what was necessary. I think anyone who thinks he'd allow it in his lifetime -- or at least during his stewardship over Apple -- is smoking something unsavory.

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. Karl says:

      Apple was getting beat up by the clone manufactures that's for sure. But in the end Apple learned something from it - How to build cheaper boxes and how to set up a profitable internet store by poaching ideas/management from PowerComputing. I am hoping that they can do the same here and realize how to be profitable in the cheaper/upgradable headless Mac.

      *Disclaimer... In '97 I purchased a PowerCenter Tower because it was faster and less expensive than the Apple branded Mac. Long live the clones!!!!!! :)

    6. I had a PowerTower Pro, the top-of-the-line model. My remembrance is a little painful, because I bruised my fingers occasionally upgrading RAM and adding hard drives. It was hostile inside, and that was typical of the PC boxes on with Power's products were based.

      I soon returned to a pure Apple Mac, and sold the PowerTower Pro to a local graphic artist. Last I heard, his youngest child was still using it -- and not opening the case of course. :D

      Peace,
      Gene

    7. Karl says:

      Oh yeah, taking those PowerTowers apart and adding anything was a pain. I scraped many a knuckle installing RAM, a Zip Drive, Hard Drives and a processor upgrade - brutal.

      I always heard a lot of negative things about PowerComputing but mine still runs well, with a 350MHz G3 processor upgrade OS 9 flies on it. I just don't use OS 9 any more.

    8. David T says:

      "a genuine Apple product warranty and what is regarded as the best support in the PC industry."

      Wha. . . ? The AppleCare *warranty* has pretty good terms, but I hear stories from a LOT of frustrated users about support implementation. This has been a problem at Apple for years. . .

      As for PowerComputing hurting Apple? Well, I recall buying a PowerBase tower for a mere $1800(?), by far the cheapest price for a MacOS machine on the market. I would not have been able to afford an Apple machine and likely would have been forced to go without or buy a PC eventually. It worked well, ending its life with something like a 350MHz G4.

      The clones did get Apple to start lowering prices and that helped in the long run. There is no denying that.

    9. "a genuine Apple product warranty and what is regarded as the best support in the PC industry."

      Wha. . . ? The AppleCare *warranty* has pretty good terms, but I hear stories from a LOT of frustrated users about support implementation. This has been a problem at Apple for years. . .

      As for PowerComputing hurting Apple? Well, I recall buying a PowerBase tower for a mere $1800(?), by far the cheapest price for a MacOS machine on the market. I would not have been able to afford an Apple machine and likely would have been forced to go without or buy a PC eventually. It worked well, ending its life with something like a 350MHz G4.

      The clones did get Apple to start lowering prices and that helped in the long run. There is no denying that.

      I think the lowered prices had more to do with Steve Jobs wanting to make the company more efficient. Fewer models, fewer product lines, more use of industry-standard components. That adds up to reduced manufacturing costs, which means cheaper prices for all.

      As to the AppleCare warranty, tell us about the horror stories. Apple routinely gets the best support ratings in the industry.

      Peace,
      Gene

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