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The Mac Clone Controversy Rears Its Ugly Head

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 note-book 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:

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.