Interest in Psystar shows market for gaming Mac

All this hullaballoo this past week over Psystar and its supposed PC- based Mac clone can lead to a number of different conclusions about the state of the Mac market. But to the game-minded, the interest in OS X-equipped PC underscores the fact that there’s a hole in Apple’s product line worth addressing: a mid-range computer that could well help fill the void that Mac gamers have felt for years now.

Let’s rewind the clock back to 2005, when Steve Jobs first announced Apple’s plans to migrate to an Intel microprocessor architecture during his keynote address to attendees of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. In the days and weeks after that event, developers discovered that Apple’s test machines were little more than PC motherboards equipped with software to run an Intel-native build of Mac OS X.

Since then, interest has run high in technical circles over the feasibility of creating a “Hackintosh,” if you will—a PC, built from commodity parts, that can run Mac OS X. The high cost of Apple hardware has long been seen as an impediment to consumer adoption of the Mac, especially among hobbyists, many of whom like to use their computers to play games in their spare time.

Apple’s rising marketshare notwithstanding, some believe it would rise even faster if the Mac hardware was an open architecture—if you could build your own box to run Mac OS X on, just like you can with Windows.

Psystar, according to information posted on its Web site, is leveraging the work of the OSx86 Project in order to get its PC to function with Mac OS X. The OSx86 Project first came to the fore after WWDC 2005, and it’s had success finding ways to work around Apple’s hardware requirements for Mac OS X, such as looking for the “Trusted Platform Module” (TPM), which ordinarily prevents OS X from running on non-Apple hardware.

Inside baseball regarding Psystar’s clone program aside, the company’s efforts have received an enormous amount of attention from Mac users this past week. And a lot of it has to do with the interest of users who would love to have a Mac, but aren’t willing to be subjected to Apple’s hardware restrictions.

Don’t get me wrong—I think Apple makes beautiful boxes. But hobbyists who play games have a point when they say that the Mac is expensive. I can put together a considerably more powerful Windows gaming machine for 30 to 40 percent less than I can when paying Apple’s prices. And I can do it using components I wouldn’t be able to use in a Mac, such as third-party Nvidia and ATI-based graphics cards that aren’t available on the Mac, different hard drives and RAM components, different microprocessors, and more.

In any case, to see Apple tap into this market would require a lot more than just the mythical midrange Mac minitower my colleague Dan Frakes has long dreamt of. It would require a fundamental shift in Apple’s product development strategy, away from keeping hardware and software in lockstep with one another, and toward a more open environment where the operating system runs on a basic hardware specification that the user can vary dramatically based on their needs.

For a variety of technical and cultural reasons, I don’t see that happening at Apple any time soon. But as a gamer, I can fantasize about it, for sure.

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