Does the World Really Need Mac Clones?

November 24th, 2009

From Day One of the arrival of the Apple Macintosh in 1984, many insisted Apple was missing the boat by not licensing its crown jewels, the Mac OS, to other companies. This theory had it that Apple would benefit big time as more and more computers bearing their operating system became available.

As some of you might remember, however, the Mac OS was actually free in those days. The few people who actually got online, and could afford to remain there for hours retrieving the files at a time when there was a hefty charge for such things, could legally download the files and copy them to floppies. If that wasn’t possible, you could always visit a friendly dealer, a Mac users group or a friend to make copies for you.

In the 1990s, that stopped, as Apple decided that the Mac OS should be a separate, standalone retail product, even though it was still designed strictly to run on Macs. However, that didn’t stop an occasional enterprising company from buying up old Apple ROMS, bundling them into their own hardware, such as portables, and selling unofficial clones.

At a time when Apple’s leadership lacked a long-term game plan, they relented and decided to actually license the Mac OS and reference hardware designs to several companies, small and large, to spread the joy. Certainly there were loud cheers both from the tech media and customers who felt they could now buy computers running the Mac OS without paying what was then a real Apple Tax, a far higher price to buy a real Mac.

I suppose Apple didn’t consider the laws of unintended consequences, because the contracts were poorly crafted. Indeed, I would think that the executives who negotiated those deals should have been fired forthwith, although I suppose most of them departed anyway when Steve Jobs returned to the company.

In any case, such aggressive startups as Power Computing went after Apple’s core market of content creators with a vengeance, building cheap hardware that happened to run the Mac OS and undercutting Apple at every turn. In the quest for rapid growth and short-term profits, I suspect Power Computing’s executives didn’t realize that they, and other licensees, were cutting off Apple at the knees and would ultimately kill the company, and the operating system they licensed.

Steve Jobs put a stop to this deal from hell in a very smart fashion. The contract licensed Mac OS 7, so he renamed the next version as Mac OS 8 and crafted a proposed contract with terms far too onerous for any of the existing licensees or any potential licensee to accept. Apple bought Power Computing in a $100 million all stock transaction, the main benefit of which was Power’s wonderful online order system. That formed the basis for Apple’s online store, by the way.

In any case, with the clones history, Apple shored up its bottom line, shuttered poor-performing products and development initiatives and reemerged as the huge success story it is today.

Despite the ongoing demands by some elements of the tech media that Apple needs to open up its ecosystem and allow third parties to legally use its operating system, it’s clear to me that it won’t happen anytime soon or ever. Apple continues to make record profits, and sales of iPhones and Macs continue to grow at rates that surpass most of the competition.

How can you argue with success?

Well, I suppose if you’re running another company, saddled with the garbage that Microsoft continues to foist on you, there must be a huge incentive to license a different operating system, and it’s clear to me that Dell, as a key example, would jump at the chance if Apple decided to let them install Mac OS X on their PCs. Indeed Michael Dell has already been quoted in one email that he’d be delighted to do so if the opportunity arose.

However, in the retail marketplace, Apple’s products are unique. Although they use industry-standard parts for the most part, their products continue to set the trend for style and they are even environmentally friendly nowadays. So when you buy an iPhone, an iPod, a Mac or any other Apple gadget, you are getting something that not only looks pretty, but works beautifully with one of the best reliability rates in the industry.

Except for a handful of premium PCs from Sony and some specialty makers, the average PC looks dull, undistinguished, and has little beyond a nameplate to separate it from the competition. Does Apple really want the Mac OS to run on such products? Besides, Apple would likely confront the same nightmare that Microsoft regularly deals with, making the operating system run properly in tens of thousands of possible system setups over which they have no control whatever.

More to the point, Apple is in the business of making money, and they’d have to sell may times more software licenses before they’d earn enough profits to match what they lose from hardware sales. That’s because cloners would undercut Apple’s products at every turn, and sacrifice profits in order to build market share. In other words, Apple would likely put itself in the same perilous position that existed in the mid-1990s before Steve Jobs stopped the cloning.

This hasn’t kept hobbyists from building their own Hacintoshes. In the end, some of these people might even decide that it’s less irritating and time-consuming just to buy regular Macs. There’s also the issue of Psystar, that little company that continues to flout Apple’s user license, despite losing out in court. Whether they are a stalking horse for a bigger company, or just a handful of eager young people who threw the dice and hoped it would pay off, they will be gone soon.

Yes, there would be lots more options should Apple decide to license its operating systems. But it’s just not going to happen.

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18 Responses to “Does the World Really Need Mac Clones?”

  1. Andrew says:

    I remember those big multi-page Power Computing ads. The specs were very impressive for the prices, but they sure were rough-looking boxes in person.

    • @Andrew, Wait till you opened one up and attempted to add an extra hard drive or replace RAM. I wonder if Johnson & Johnson had a piece of the company, since it was so easy to scratch your fingers


      • Karl says:

        @Gene Steinberg,

        Until Apple came out with the 7200/7300 series of Macs you would bust your knuckles on most Macs. I had 8100/100 and that case was a nightmare. Before that I had a Quadra 950. That one wasn’t to bad to work on.

  2. DaveD says:

    Gosh, a well-written piece bring back the memories of the tough times. Laying down the facts as to what happened and why. I do remember the Power Computing ads and was I tempted? You betcha! It was like they were the new Dell for Macs. But, I held firm holding back the thousand and thousands and thousands of dollars for the right PowerPC-based notebook.

    As I read readers’ comments on other sites the term “Apple Fanboys” is used many times. Maybe it is just me, but I feel that it is used in a derisive manner. I prefer the term “Mac Enthusiast.” The same kind of description to the one who seeks out fine wines. I do think the comparison of Macs to PCs is very similar to BMWs to Fords. Parts are parts, but the styling is so different. The engine that powers the Macs is the Mac OS X, a V-12 that gets 30 miles-per-gallon in the city (one can dream).

    • @DaveD, Too bad I haven’t spent much time driving Fords. My first car was actually a Chevy, an old one contributed by my aunt, which lasted all of two months or so before we had to trade it in. Ah, memories. So long ago, so far away.



  3. hmurchison says:

    I danced happily on Power Computing’s grave. I enjoyed every minute…every second of their
    slow – and likely- agonizing death.

    They were like the drunken and unintelligent cousin of Dell computers. Their sales reps lied constantly
    and dealt from the bottom of the deck (when they started allowing distribution through other resellers).

    Their hardware was shoddy. Defective rates were above 20%

    The smartest thing that Jobs did was killed the clones. They were leaches as he said and did nothing but attempt to cannibalize Apple’s sales.

    Assuming cloning will work for a more tightly controlled Mac market because cloning works for the X86 is the height of illogical thinking.

    I’m glad things have turned out the way they have. Phew

  4. Karl says:

    My first “Mac” at home was from PowerComputing. It was a PowerCenter 132 tower. Their build quality/power supplies were a bit suspect, but I still have mine and while it doesn’t get used daily any longer, it still fires up and runs well.

    PowerComputing was kicking Apple’s butt when it came to making Macs. At the time, their marketing campaign was superior. They had an online shop and their “Macs” were faster/cheaper. Apple just couldn’t compete with them.

    With that said, I do believe if PowerComputing and the other clones would of continued Apple wouldn’t of been around today. The good thing that came out of the “clone wars” was that Apple learned how to compete again.

  5. mcloki says:

    I have both a Power Computing 180 and a Hackintosh. Both worked great. Does the world need clones. I’d say yes from a free enterprise point and a no from Apple’s perspective.
    Until it’s shown that Apple is losing share to the Hackintosh crowd. I have two “real macs” as well and while I like my Hacktinosh, it’s not because it’s a Mac. It’s because it’s given me something to play around with, to tinker with. I bought my mom a mini, there’s no way she’d be able to deal with the Hackintosh. But I like the fooling around.
    DO I think Macs should be less expensive and more accessible. Sure. That’s what the clone debate is all about. More Mac OS to more people. But from Apple’s 35 billion cash in hand position, Why change? They can’t hear our pleas for a cheaper mac due to all the cash registers ringing.

    • Joe Anonymous says:

      @mcloki, “Does the world need clones. I’d say yes from a free enterprise point”

      What a silly, narrow-minded point of view.

      So you’re arguing that Apple should be forced to give up its intellectual property against its will as a way to encourage competition? If the ‘reward’ for innovation is losing control of your intellectual property, just why should anyone invest in innovation?

      I would argue that the best thing from the world’s perspective would be for people to be complaining to Microsoft about their inability to innovate – or even deliver products as good as their much smaller competitor. If enough people complain (or even switch), perhaps Microsoft would spend the time and money learning to write good software.

  6. Louis Wheeler says:

    I’ve said repeatedly, and as some people would say, compulsively, that Apple will get around to squashing the Hackintoshes.

    Reinstalling the OS is a huge security flaw which is carried over from when the Mac was a stand alone computer and not portable. It’s what allows for to be a market in stolen computers.

    It would be of great marketing benefit to Apple to close this flaw off. If a SMB company’s notebook goes lost or stolen with sensitive data on it, the owner would appreciate that the private information is to be automatically encrypted. The owner would also like for the OS not to be overwritten, so that if the computer is plugged into the internet, it can report home its location via GPS.

    The intent would be to improve security in the 64 bit kernel, but the effect would make it difficult to install Mac OSX on PC’s or clones. The installation program would be sand boxed and refuse to co-operate by installing the software.

  7. David says:

    I have a soft spot in my heart for Mac clones, but I don’t see a good reason for them today.

    In 1995/96 I worked for an Apple dealer and saw first hand the bad cache problem with the 5200/6200, the dog slow performance of the 7200/75 and 90, the flakey SCSI of the 7500, the 50% failure rate of the AppleVision 1710 and the nightmare of System 7.5.2. Most of the Power Computing machines I encountered had strange problems that couldn’t be solved with normal troubleshooting techniques. It was also the era of Microsoft Word 6.0 and therefore the worst possible time to be trying to make a living selling Macs.

    So I went back to school, but soon found myself needing to run Windows. I was at a crossroads. My Quadra 650 was a fine home computer, but it couldn’t run Windows. I didn’t have room for two computers so it looked like I was moving to a PC. Luckily two totally unrelated things had happened:
    1. Connectix released VirtualPC
    2. Umax released the SuperMac J700/180, a US$2000 clone based on the stable PowerMac 9500 logic board with enough power to run VirtualPC at an acceptable speed.

    If not for that J700 I would have purchased a PC and probably gotten hooked on low cost upgrades. Instead I made a Mac clone my baby and spent a small fortune on RAM, ultra SCSI drives, video cards and CPU upgrades.

    For the next decade I was excited about Apple hardware. My SuperMac saw the arrival of two different dual G4s and two dual G5s before I finally got over my sentimental attachment to the old beige box.

    When they switched to Intel Apple became obsessed with making computers smaller. Performance started to suffer, the towers moved up in price and relatively unreliable all-in-one units took their place in the price list. I stopped wanting a new Mac. I posted long lists of what was wrong with the Apple desktop lineup on forums and met many people who shared my concerns, but nothing changed. The hackintosh filled my imagination just as a Mac clone had 12.5 years ago.

    Then Apple did something amazing. They released the Core i5/i7 iMac with a dazzling, albeit far too shiny, display. They even added video input so when the computer gets too old for serious work, the display can be driven by a newer Mac. Although I can’t afford to purchase one yet, Apple has won me over. My three remaining concerns: reliability, glare and the inaccessible internal hard drive can be addressed with AppleCare, new room lighting and external drives. Those all cost money, but after more than 17 years as a Mac owner I’m used to paying more.

  8. dfs says:

    All you people taking a trip down memory lane need to be reminded that PowerComputer wasn’t the only clone: we also had DayStar, Radius, etc., and I myself had a Motorla StarMax for several years, which was a quite satisfactory machine. But let’s get back to Gene’s question. Who in the world needs a Hackintosh? The only clienteles I can think of are hobbyists who get OSX to run on a PC for the pure hell of it and people who can’t afford anything else, and I must admit to a certain sneaking sympathy for both groups. A few of those hobbyists may grow up to be part of our next generation of computer engineers (some of whom might wind up working at Cupertino) and I can’t help thinking of the former NBA star David Robinson, who was so poor as a kid that he couldn’t afford a computer, so he cobbled together one out of odd parts, and it might not be impossible that this feat helped get him into Annapolis. But in any event I can’t imagine that the Hackintosh movement poses any kind of real economic threat to Apple, and if I were Steve I would remember my own young days and feel a kind of sneaking sympathy. Unauthorized clones like the Psystar are something else entirely. Apple won that legal battle easily, but I can imagine two other possible challenges that might pose more serious threats because they might be harder to put out of business: someone who sold a model capable of running OSX but who required each user to buy and install his own copy of OSX, or a software product that allowed some or even all PC’s to run OSX under emulation.

  9. Knute5 says:

    The cloners originally sold Apple on the promise of expanding Apple’s market share, but instead went straight for Apple’s base, cannibalizing Apple base hardware sales. At the same time, the AIM consortium (Apple, IBM and Motorola) was falling apart as jealous Moto couldn’t make a decent CPU to save its life and IBM was spitting out the G3.

    Spindler’s, then Amelio’s Apple dragged its heels on the G3, still peddling the 604e/603e processor machines, while Power Computing (bless their hearts) showed the only “sack” in the industry with their upstart advertising and push for the G3’s adoption.

    Back in Cupertino, the Copeland, ScriptX, OpenDoc (insert Boondoggle here) teams had proliferated, sucking up money, time and user patience and hope. Even the turd-in-a-box Pippin was a misfire – none of the old Mac CDROMs would run on it because the OS had to be included on the optical media.

    It was a mess. Steve Jobs walked into a total mess, and the only thing he could do was strip Apple back down to its core functional competency and rebuild from there. He redefined the company, no longer as a computer box maker, but to a digital lifestyle provider. The rest is history. Jobs was right, and now the industry is still trying to catch up.

    • Karl says:


      How true! During the “clone wars” Apple was lost anyway, so why not go after them? Apple’s leadership was struggling to turn the company around. The hardware was good but the price was high and the OS was certainly on its last legs.

      I think at the time Apple really had some great ideas… CHRP architecture, PowerPC, OpenDoc, QuickDraw and others were really interesting but they just didn’t ever get Apple anywhere. I’m glad Steve came back, brought NeXT with him and basically saved Apple. If I remember correctly Steve always wanted Apple to be more like SONY and less like Microsoft.

      Looking at Apple now they certainly are more like SONY. Apple has been moving away from computers* ever since Steve had Bill on the projector at MacWorld and said the desktop wars are over.

      * What I mean by this is that while Apple continues to build and make computers and will so for the foreseeable future. Apple has helped cultivate the idea that computers should be appliances. Take the iMac and now the iPhone for examples… certainly both are computers, but certainly both could be considered internet appliances.

  10. dfs says:

    “I think at the time Apple really had some great ideas… CHRP architecture, PowerPC, OpenDoc, QuickDraw and others were really interesting but they just didn’t ever get Apple anywhere.” Back then Apple had a nasty habit of developing, or at least semi-developing, some interesting technology, and then just pushing it out the door and hoping that third-party developers would latch on it but not doing much to implement it themselves (OpenDoc is a classic example: back when Apple owned Claris, OpenDoc was supposed to be implemented in an AppleWorks 5.0 that never got released). This sent a clear message to developers: if we aren’t going to make any investment in implementing this technology, neither should you, and the result was that Apple frittered away a huge amount of time and energy on projects that never got anywhere. This, together with the licensing of clones and the insane proliferation of Mac models, was one of the ways that Amelio, Spindler and Sculley came so close to driving Apple into the ground. It was if, whenever some Apple engineer came up with a Bright Idea, nobody in management had the gnids to say no to him.

    • Karl says:

      For sure… Plus it didn’t help much that Microsoft was king of the hill. Most companies just didn’t want to devote any resources to develop Mac compatible software.

      With Apple using more “off the shelf” components for their hardware. Moving to NeXT. The open source movement. The internet. Microsoft investing into 5 yrs of making Office for the Mac, as well as Microsoft’s security mishaps have all played a part on Apple coming back from the grave.

      Back in the day, I really enjoyed being a Mac/PowerComputing user. I not sure why, but it was different from being a Mac user today. Not that I’m complaining about being a Mac user today. 🙂 So while I liked my PowerComputing clone, I glad to see Apple back and competing again.

      • @Karl, I liked my Power Computing clone too. I didn’t like opening it up, and swapping out components, because it was downright treacherous in there. Then again, Apple was notorious in those days for producing products far more difficult to upgrade than even today’s Mac mini.


        • Karl says:

          @Gene Steinberg,

          Oh yeah… I still have scars from opening and swapping ram, hard drives, CD drives and God forbid if I ever had to change the battery, hit the CUDA switch or the every-so-tightly-placed cache module in that PowerCenter.

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