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Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Clone Your Mac

Since Psystar, a tiny Florida-based company, began to sell Mac clones this past spring, I’m sure many of you wondered just when Apple would respond. For weeks, the silence seemed deafening, or maybe the early teething problems Psystar encountered before they got their venture up and running gave Apple hope that they’d be able to save the legal fees and let the upstart die of its own accord.

That, however, didn’t happen, and just recently, Psystar supplemented its Open Computer line with an Xserve clone, known as OpenServ. That was evidently the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Apple gave the company a fourth of July “gift” by filing a multi-count intellectual property lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on July 3rd.

Why it took more than a week for that information to reach the media is anyone’s guess, or perhaps everyone was just too focused on the mad rush to launch the iPhone 3G, MobileMe, and all the rest of the trials and tribulations Apple confronted last weekend.

In any case, Psystar’s site was offline briefly when I wrote this article. However, they were soon back online after dealing with an apparent MySQL database issue. For a few moments, I actually thought that the company was done for the count — or preparing to reemerge under a different name in order to continue to do business as usual.

Or perhaps they are hoping against hope that they can somehow postpone the inevitable and hold Apple at bay for a few months with countersuits, appeals and what-not, so they can sell as many boxes as they can before they need to finally pull the plug and get on with their lives. I just hope they can afford the legal fees, or have friends or relatives willing to assist pro bono.

However, it just goes to show how fundamentally simple it really is to launch such a venture. Certainly, anyone who is reasonably adept at assembling their home-built PC can become a Mac cloner if they choose. Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths discovered this first-hand with his “FrankenMac” project, where he assembled a PC from off-the-shelf components and then consulted information online from the OSX86Project on how to induce Mac OS X Leopard to install itself on the finished product.

But Rob isn’t alone in this pursuit. I dare say there are thousands of people around the world who have done the very same thing. But so long as they keep it to themselves, and don’t try to market their creations, I don’t expect Apple is going to pay very much attention. In Rob’s case, it was strictly a journalistic exercise, and the computer is being reverted to its generic PC status, now that the article has been published.

More to the point, it’s quite likely that, having done this sort of thing, a lot of those power users might come to realize that their hobbies might be enjoyable, but if they want to get a powerful, reliable work computer, a real Mac is a better choice. No doubt, Apple realizes this too, since they haven’t done an awful lot to halt the process — until it was attempted on a retail basis of course.

Now I realize there might be some innate advantages to rolling your own Mac. First and foremost, you save money right away simply because you don’t have to pay a manufacturer’s retail markup. While Apple surely benefits from economies of scale, buying tens of millions of components with which to assemble their products, you can customize your own faux Mac precisely as you wish, given the limits of what’s available on the open market.

Basically, the assembly process is hardly more difficult than building a standard Windows PC, although you want to check the online information about which parts provide the highest level of compatibility. Once you are past that hurdle, there is the larger one, in which you use software hacks to install Mac OS X.

In the end, you’ll probably end up with something that’s essentially a real Mac in most respects; that is, until it’s time to install an Apple software update. Then you might have to engage in a few additional feats of basic magic to make it happen, and there’s no guarantee that Apple’s development team won’t add a few time bombs of their own to sabotage your upgrade efforts.

This isn’t to say Apple is deliberately attempting to brick those clones, in the same fashion as they allegedly did things to render unlocked iPhones inoperable some months back. It may just be the nature of the hack that makes it sensitive even to otherwise benign programming changes.

As far as I’m concerned, I really have no interest in reviewing any of Psytar’s products or, in fact, assembling my own Mac clone. It’s not that I’m unskilled at such things. I was assembling tube radios when I was 12, and I became reasonably flexible with screwdrivers, pliers, and, of course, my ever-present soldering gun. Yes, the radios usually worked when I plugged them in for the first time.

However, these days I find it far more convenient to just buy the product I want and let someone else do the assembly and testing. That way, if something goes wrong, it’s usually their fault and they are obligated to make the repairs.

In the larger scheme of things, you can bet that the way Apple is going, the prospect of a legal line of Mac clones is definitely not in the cards. Apple’s been there, and done that. There is no turning back, so long as they can continue to milk the Mac for all it’s worth.