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Apple and the Cloners: Round Two

Just today, my copy of the August 2008 issue of Macworld arrived, with a fascinating headline situated above the title: “Mac CLones: Are They Coming Back?”

This would seem a silly proposition, since Steve Jobs ejected the last round of cloners, because their actions were threatening Apple. While the company’s erstwhile executives felt that ceding to the constant demands to open the platform would expand the Mac platform, they encountered the reverse. Aggressive startups, such as Power Computing, went with a vengeance after Apple’s core market with cheaper and faster products.

Indeed, Apple was hemorrhaging lots of red ink when Jobs took over as “interim” CEO in those days, and a lot of the members of the tech press and even Wall Street even felt Apple had gone down for the last count.

However, so many things have changed since then, the most important of which is the fact that Apple’s sales are higher than ever, and Mac market share is increasing at long last, after moving in the opposite direction for so many years.

Yet, when Apple switched to Intel processors, the ugly specter of cloning rose yet again. After all, if a Mac had basically the same hardware as the typical Windows box, certainly it should be possible to install Mac OS X on the latter. To be sure, this task was accomplished rather quickly, as hackers figured a way to induce their vanilla PC hardware to accept a Mac OS installation.

This is not to say the process is easy. For one thing, you have to assemble hardware, such as graphic cards and optical drives, that are similar to the ones Apple uses, so you can be assured of decent compatibility. Running a software update, which is normally a fairly trivial process, can be difficult. If Apple makes the wrong kind of changes, further hacking might be necessary to make the installation take.

In large part, then, the folks who created these unofficial clones were power users who understood the risks they were taking, but were willing to go through the ordeal. Maybe they were just having fun, maybe they thought they could pave the way for a new generation of cloning, maybe Apple would make it official.

The chances of the latter, to me at least, have always seemed slim to none. Apple’s marketing strategy has been demonstrated time and time again to be brimming with success. Macs, iPods, iPhones and whatever else Apple might unleash upon an unsuspecting but eager customer base, are likely going to remain vertically integrated with the hardware and software coming from a single source.

There is absolutely no incentive to change things. Indeed, even if Apple opened up the Mac platform to the low-end market where they don’t play, they will confront much higher development costs to certify additional hardware configurations, and compatibility problems are apt to occur, just as they have with the Windows platform.

But what about a certain Florida-based company, Psystar, that is actually selling fully-assembled clones?

When I first heard about that company a few months ago, it seemed they wouldn’t survive a week, let alone persevere for months and expand their product line. Today, you can buy various versions of their Open Computer and OpenPro Computers, and even get an Xserve clone, known as OpenServ.

So how can that be? We all know that Apple’s user license, for both the client and server versions of Mac OS X, restrict installation to an Apple-built personal computer. We know that Psystar is just assembling its boxes in the same fashion as those late Mac OS clones, from off-the-shelf PC parts. Sure, they are sufficiently selective in their choices, so the systems will work out of the box, assuming you pay them extra for a Mac OS X installation.

Indeed, published tests so far show good compatibility and performance in keeping with the level of hardware that Psystar provides.

But what is Apple doing about all this? Where’s what we all felt was the inevitable lawsuit to shut this operation down before this venture catches on?

Now to be fair, if you add the stuff that’s standard in a typical Mac to the bare bones Psystar box, the price differential is sharply reduced, although the latter still uses faster parts. But that still reduces its value, unless you just like to take chances.

After all, even if Apple doesn’t act right away to stop that company in the courts with an injunction, Psystar’s potential longevity is surely a question mark. Beyond a core segment of people who hope to save some money and are willing to take chances on a supplier that might be here today and gone tomorrow, it’s questionable just how well this venture might succeed.

As far as Apple is concerned, I don’t understand the waiting game. If they don’t protect their intellectual property rights, they stand a chance of suffering in the legal system if they stall much longer.

All right, some people believe that Psystar is actually Apple in a different guise, just testing the cloning waters to see how it flies. Or maybe Apple simply hopes Psystar will just go away, so they can save the multimillion dollar expense of an extended legal action. Or maybe they’ll just surprise us somehow and begin a real cloning initiative.

On the other hand, I think the chances of the latter remain at the low end of zero.