• The Mac Hardware Report: The Cloning Myth Revisited

    June 18th, 2005

    Wouldn’t you know it? The dudes who kept demanding that Apple clone the Mac OS over the years have come out of the closet again to spread their nonsense. You would think they learned their lesson when Apple’s first and only attempt to license other companies to build Macs a decade ago ended in abject failure. When Steve Jobs killed the program, he saved the company, which was on the verge of going down in flames.

    Of course, when the news came of the Apple/Intel deal, you didn’t have to be a mind reader to hear sounds of vindication. All right, Apple says that Mac OS X will continue to run only on Macs, that you won’t, or shouldn’t, be able to run the system on a vanilla PC box. Wink, wink, nod, nod, of course it’ll happen anyway, they say. Once Apple joins the Intel Inside crowd, it’ll be a piece of cake for some hacker to come along and find a way to reverse engineer whatever hardware protection is used. In short order, the genie will be out of the bottle. How could it be otherwise?

    Now I wouldn’t presume to speculate on the techniques Apple and Intel will use to prevent clones. It’ll certainly be a whole lot more sophisticated than that used in the 1980s when IBM lost the battle to keep other companies from entering the PC clone game. It doesn’t matter. It’ll be difficult, if not impossible, and Apple’s legal eagles will clamp down hard on anyone foolish enough to attempt to defeat the hardware blocks.

    At the same time, a few pundits feel that Apple is missing the boat not letting you run Mac OS X on a Dell, an HP, or the box you built in your living room from the raw ingredients you bought at the local PC club. Why shouldn’t Apple, now in the belly of the beast, hit Microsoft four square and try to take over the PC market, just as it’s taken over the digital music player market? Wouldn’t it be great to see Mac OS X on 90% of the personal computers on the planet? It would be just wonderful, right? It would be a dream come true. But do you think Apple will survive long enough for it to happen?

    Just take a look at Apple’s financials and consider the impact to the company if it gutted its hardware division. And that’s precisely what would happen if you could run Mac OS X on any old PC. Sure some folks would still buy a real Mac, because of its superior looks. But consider the lessons of history: When Mac OS cloners put Apple designed hardware inside cheap PC boxes, people began to stop buying Macs. What makes anyone think it wouldn’t happen again if Apple took another stab at cloning?

    And I might as well repeat myself: Once you open up the Mac OS to a nearly uncountable variety of hardware, all hopes of true plug and play go right out the window. There is no way Apple could possibly test its system software against even a fraction of those PC boxes, and even if it tried, it would only slow down development of new versions of Mac OS X considerably. One of the reasons Microsoft can’t spin on a dime with system upgrades, despite its huge cash hoard and programming staff, is the result of the near-impossibility of making Windows compatible with all that hardware in a timely fashion. Or at all.

    I suppose if you want Apple to go belly up, big time, that is a great way for it to happen. Do these pundits really believe Apple wouldn’t take such a potentially suicidal step? Sure, Apple might very well want to hit the mass market big time, but it would be probably be done in the same fashion as the iPod, with full control over the software and the hardware. That’s Apple’s DNA; it’s Steve Jobs’ DNA.

    Now it may well be that there might be reasons for Apple to establish a carefully controlled cloning program, perhaps licensing one or two select companies, such as HP, to build and/or market Mac OS computers. If it happens, it would be done strictly to allow Apple to build market share in areas where it has no presence now, and that certainly wouldn’t be the consumer or graphics markets. But I really believe it’ll be done in the same fashion as HP handles the iPod now. The product will be the same. Only the packaging and, perhaps, product name will change. So maybe there will be an Apple PowerBook by HP or something similar, but I don’t see it expanding beyond that in the foreseeable future.

    Of course, the situation could change a few years from now, and maybe Apple will devise a workable strategy to open the cloning floodgates. Right now, however, I think anyone suggesting such a thing with a straight face is trying to, like it or not, destroy Apple Computer.

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