Computer: The First Macintosh Clone in a Decade
by Alan Zisman (c)
published in Low
In the news this week: a small Florida-based company, Psystar
offered customers what it promised were Mac OS X compatible PC clones
for $399. For about half the price of a low-end Mac mini, Psystar's
Open Computer offered a faster and bigger hard drive, a more powerful
dedicated graphics card, and expandability in a generic PC clone tower
No operating system for that price, though. Psystar noted:
the EFI V8 emulator it is possible to install Leopard's kernel straight
from the DVD that you purchased at the Apple Store barring the addition
of a few drivers to ensure that everything boots and runs smoothly,"
The company also offered copies of Leopard for $150, and if you bought
it from them, they would install it.
the catch? Ever since Apple canceled its clone licensing program in the
late 1990s, the various versions of the Mac operating system have
included a clause that customers could only run it on Apple-branded
By the afternoon of April 14th, the company's Open
Computer webpage was no longer responding. Perhaps it was overwhelmed
by the response after the news got out, but I wouldn't be surprised if
they'd heard from Apple's lawyers.
A little Mac-history:
1994 (in the era of System 7.x), Apple announced that it would allow
non-Apple computer manufacturers to license the then-current Mac
operating system. The company's hope was that these other companies
would help grow the market for Mac OS-powered systems in market niches
where Apple was not reaching out.
Several companies, including
Umax, Motorola, and others paid Apple's licensing fees. By 1996, they
accounted for about 10% of all Macs sold worldwide. In that same year,
however, Apple's sales were some 30% lower than the year before.
Apple's hope had been that the clones would bring the joy of Mac to new
markets, apparently the bulk of the clone sales were to people
replacing an older Mac - in other words, Apple's core customer base.
With Mac-compatible systems that were either cheaper or more powerful
than official Apple models, that should have been no surprise. (In this
era, I owned a Motorola StarMax, built around a 160 MHz PowerPC 603e
CPU. It used PC-style VGA displays and a PS/2 mouse and keyboard but
ran Mac OS 7.5.3 and all the Mac software I could throw at it just
Upon Steve Jobs' 1997 return to Apple, he realized that
this was a problem for the company; Apple was primarily a hardware
company, and there was a lot more profit in selling a Mac than in
getting what has been estimated as a $25 licensing fee when Motorola or
Umax sold a Mac clone. One of his first acts as Apple CEO was to
announce that the clone licenses were not going to be renewed past
early 1998, and that even existing licensees weren't going to be
allowed to offer new versions of the Mac OS starting with Mac OS 7.6.
Apple has ignored calls to make the Mac operating system available to
other companies ever since.
was harder to make a clone Mac back then; much of what made a Mac a Mac
was hard-wired into the computer's ROM chips. More recently, though,
this code was moved to software. And even more recently, Apple switched
from using PowerPC CPUs to Intel chips - the same sort of CPUs found in
most Windows PCs. In fact, today's Macs are arguably standard PCs in
fancy cases - and they can even be set up to boot to Windows XP or
Vista using Apple's Boot Camp installer.
Perhaps it is not
surprising, then, that there's an underground "Hackintosh" movement
devoted to the tricks needed to build a do-it-yourself PC that can boot
to Mac OS X. I haven't done it, so please don't ask me for advice. As
long as the movement remained do-it-yourself, Apple seemed to be
leaving it alone. But in offering products for sale - and in getting a
fair bit of media attention - Psystar apparently crossed a line.
Psystar's "Open Computer" does suggest that there is a market for a
lower-priced, expandable Mac - but will Apple listen?