Attack of the clones

If there’s one issue the Mac community has long felt divided on, it’s cloning. I’m not talking about the ethics of creating baby sheep, or the questionable efficiency of the Republic’s clone army, but something far more important—running the Mac OS on hardware not manufactured by Apple. Over the years, a number of pundits and others have clamored for Apple to license its operating system to other hardware manufacturers, stating indefatigably that this would lead Apple to riches and glory.

Clones used to be the enemy. Back in the 1980s, the term was more or less synonymous with IBM PCs; machines that ran DOS and were the cheap efficient workhorses to the expensive luxury Macs. Then, for the briefest of instants in the ’90s, clones became Apple’s allies. CEO Michael Spindler licensed the Mac OS to a handful different manufacturers: Umax, Power Computing, Motorola, DayStar, APS, and Radius. The result? Machines that were theoretically just as capable as Macs, but cheaper than what Apple was producing. Whether or not that was always the case is a matter that’s open for debate: at least one friend of mine had a Mac clone in the ’90s that was a support nightmare.

Of course, the era of Mac clones didn’t last long. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was kill off the clone program. That was good: the Mac clones were an attempt to turn back the clock and beat Apple’s opponent (at that time, Microsoft) at its own game, but it was too little too late, and predicated on the common fallacy that in order for Apple to win, Microsoft had to lose.

Today, circumstances have changed quite a bit. With Apple using processors from Intel, and with Macs able to run Windows, very little separates the Mac from its PC counterpart. Initiatives like the OSx86 Project aim to remove those last barriers by making it possible to run OS X on any hardware you like—and, for the most part, they’ve been successful. But such a procedure still requires you to do some fiddling with the software, and there is of course still the lingering question of legality—OS X’s End User License Agreement (EULA) prohibits installing OS X on non-Apple hardware. Put simply, it's probably not something you're going to recommend to your mom.

That, apparently, hasn’t stopped Florida-based Psystar from shipping Mac clones bundled with Leopard—and, furthermore, giving you the option to buy that hardware with the OS pre-installed. A Psystar representative talking to Information Week claimed that the company wasn’t doing anything wrong and accused Apple of violating monopoly laws, using tired analogies both poor (what if Microsoft only let Dell sell computers running Windows?) and ridiculous (what if Honda only let cars drive on approved Honda roads?).

When you think about it, the term “clone” itself is kind of a misnomer. After all, the point of clones are not that they’re exact copies of Macs, but rather, cheap imitations. It’s kind of like buying a fake Rolex on the streets of New York City—though, let’s face it, nobody is going to mistake a Psytar OpenPro for a Mac Pro, except maybe after a few drinks.

Just software doesn’t a Mac make. Apple’s always been about the whole widget. Complaining that other hardware can’t run the Mac OS is kind of like complaining that you can’t play Wii games on your PlayStation 3. It’s the combination of hardware and software that make the device what it is—or, as the old saying goes, a Mac is more than just the sum of its parts.

The truth is that most of us buy Macs not just for their superior software, but for the whole package. It’s impossible to understate the importance of hardware design to Apple’s success. Psytar’s not about to ship anything that’s even close to as pretty, thin, or lightweight as a MacBook Air, for example. There’s something profoundly other about Macs—for many of us, they’re objects of craftsmanship rather than just tools. You don’t need to do anything other than go into an Apple Store and see how people behave around them to get that. Then, just for contrast’s sake, take a stroll down to Best Buy, and see how people treat the computers there.

That said, if there’s a cheaper option, there will always be people who gravitate towards it. Given Apple’s extremely litigious nature, I doubt that Psystar will be around long enough for us to find out how many takers they'd have. My guess is that there is definitely a niche market for what they’re offering: let's call them the Wozniaks of the world. But for most, the barriers to entry (such as “not non-safe updates”) will likely prove too high. After all, if there’s one thing that most Mac users have in common, it’s the fact that we want something better—and that we’re willing to pay for it.

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