Despite small number of Mac clone companies

the copies grab hold and capture market share June 17 1997

The recent cloning of a Scottish ewe has led to more than its share of jokes and ethical debates, while the cloning by Compaq of the original IBM PC about 15 years ago has led to the wildly competitive industry that dominates the market for personal computers.

But up until just 1994, it was illegal to try to clone Apple's Macintosh.

While the press has been focusing on the flow of red ink on Apple's balance sheet these last few quarters, it has generally managed to avoid this story: how the opening of the Macintosh standard has brought new competitiveness and lower prices at the same time as yielding products that are among the most powerful desktop computers anywhere.

Mac clones accounted for nine per cent of all Macs sold worldwide in 1996, double the percentage of the year before. It's a growth industry that has occurred at the same time that Apple itself was shipping 30 per cent fewer machines to customers than in the previous year.

Still, the Mac clone industry consists of a mere half-dozen companies. It's a far cry from the PC industry, where anyone can buy a bunch of cheap parts, stuff them into a sheet-metal case, and call themselves a computer manufacturer. The reason is the Mac's operating system, which makes up the computer's unique personality. On PCs, the operating system is entirely software-based. But from its 1984 start, the Macintosh consisted of a tight coupling of software and hardware standards, all controlled by Apple.

Even today, would-be Mac cloners have to acquire customized chip-sets and ROM (Read Only Memory) chips from Apple. Without them, the Macintosh system software just won't run.

And Apple remains ambivalent about clones. It clearly derives less profit licensing its chips and operating system than it does selling a complete system. And when Apple sales are falling while clone sales are rising, it's easy to think that cloners are simply drawing off traditional Apple customers. Many in Apple would like the clones to go and find their own market niches, leaving Apple its strengths in the home and education, graphics and publishing markets.

To a certain extent, that's happened. Clone companies have developed their own identities, going after different market segments. Power Tools Systems (, for example, has released a series of low-cost boxes that, from the outside, look like any of a host of PC clones. UMAX (, on the other hand, has produced mighty twin-processor machines that will put a gleam in any graphic designer's eyes. In fact, these most powerful of recent Mac clones run neck-and-neck with the best of Apple's products -- and are faster than machines featuring the new Intel Pentium II processor as well.

It may get easier for the cloners. Despite delays, later this year Apple is due to update its operating system to support the Power PC Platform (PPCP) standard, setting it free from Apple-only hardware dependence. That will make it easier for companies to innovate, and to build in support for lower-cost PC hardware such as printers, while keeping the familiar, friendly Mac look and feel. Recently, Business in Vancouver decided it was finally time to replace its decidedly long-in-the-tooth Mac SE network. While they'd got more than their money's worth from these 10-megahertz, 1990 models, management was noticing increasing inefficiencies and grumbling from the troops. Price was a key factor in the selection of new machines, but so was the staff comfort working with Macs along with the ongoing investment in software and training. As a result, a drastic switch to Windows PCs was quickly ruled out.

Working with network consultant Brian Brown from Microquest (606-1424), BIV management looked at models from Apple as well as several Mac clones. In the end, they decided to invest in a package consisting mainly of 180-megahertz StarMax 3000 clones, from Motorola, which were then about 20 per cent cheaper than comparable Apple models. It helped that Motorola is a large company with a good reputation (in fact, it produces the PowerPC chips used in both real Macs and clone Macs), and that it offered the best warranty and maintenance package.

All new hardware is now installed in BIV's offices, and the first reports are positive. If BIV's experience is anything to go by, look for increased sales of Mac clones as a way to combine the Macintosh ease of use with the price competition and vitality of open standards. And what's still expected to come on the market? Look for clone PowerBook portables.

While stores selling PC clones seem to be on virtually every street corner, you'll have to look harder to find vendors specializing in Mac clones.

Some places to start include: Compu-2000 (436-2333), Discount Mac Club (821-1228), Vertegri (formerly Paul Gossen Consulting): 688-6792, Mac Station (466-0190 in Maple Ridge, 420-5224 in Burnaby), and Catouzer (662-7551).*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan