Macolytes around the world were buzzing this week with news that an online hardware vendor called Psystar.com is selling a $555 PC called the "Open Computer" that runs the Macintosh OS X Leopard operating system.
In fact, for about the same price, you can buy the machine with Windows or Leopard installed - or buy it for $400 with the open-source Linux operating system.
For Mac lovers accustomed to paying the Apple premium, this would be a major breakthrough - at the very least, a cheap source for the second or third computer they can't afford (or justify to their spouses) at Apple's regular prices.
If you're a Windows PC user who wants to try the Mac operating system without much risk, this could be a good deal, too. If Leopard fails to make you feel as cool as Apple's commercials insists you'll feel, you can replace it with stuffy old Microsoft Windows for $150 or so.
There are potential drawbacks to a deal like this, including Apple's army of attack lawyers and policy of death to usurpers. But we'll discuss those later.
Right now, the hardware looks like a good deal. With a 2.2 GHz Intel Core2Duo processor, 2 gigabytes of memory, 250 gigabyte hard drive and standard chassis for expansion, the OpenPC's baseline specs run rings around Apple's only low-end offering, the Mac Mini.
A beefier version of the Psystar computer called the Open Pro, which starts at $999, is aimed at Apple's high-flying Mac Pro, a favorite with graphic designers. Like its entry-level brother, the Open Pro is much cheaper than the Mac with which it competes. Whether it can keep up with Mac Pro's performance is a different matter, but in a second or third machine, many buyers may not care.
The Attack of the PC Clones has been all-but-inevitable since 2006, when Apple gave up its proprietary hardware and switched to the same Intel-based platforms that Apple Chairman Steven P. Jobs has spent so many years trashing.
I discovered how profound this change was a couple of months ago when my younger son decided he wanted a Macbook, Apple's entry level laptop.
We went to the Apple store in Towson Town Center and priced out the model he wanted, which came to about $1,300. Out of curiosity, I wandered over to a Dell computer kiosk a few yards away and found a 13-inch laptop with nearly identical components, and I mean identical. The two computers were priced less than $50 apart: aside from the color of the case (Dell red versus Apple white), the substantive difference was the operating system.
I found the same pricing in Apple's other lines. After decades of charging a premium for its hardware, Apple now prices its computers pretty much where mainstream Windows PC makers price similarly configured machines.
What differentiates Apple is that it doesn't play in the low end of the market. Most consumer desktop PCs sell for $800 or less. That's pretty much where Macs start. But there is no technical barrier to running the Mac OS on a low-cost PC with enough horsepower to handle it.
Aside from potential compatibility and driver issues that could make the OpenPC a better option for experienced users than novices, the main problem with running Leopard on a non-Mac is that Apple says you can't do it.
That prohibition is part of the 50,000-word End User License Agreement (EULA) that you say you've read when you click on a box somewhere during the installation process.
In most cases, experts say, these agreements aren't worth the electrons they're written on. However, when you challenge someone who can afford as many lawyers as Apple can hire, it doesn't matter whether you're right, but whether you can prove it before you go belly up. That's been enough to scare off most Apple challengers for the past decade or so.
Apple did flirt with outside hardware makers in the 1990s, when the company was going through a rough patch and licensed its OS to a handful of PC makers working with the PowerPC processor. These guys made perfectly good Mac clones and sold them much cheaper than Apple's machines, which didn't do much for Apple's bottom line.
When Jobs rejoined the outfit in 1997, he immediately put a stop to that - and Apple's profits soared. When you have a loyal fan base that is willing to pay a premium for your product, why would you let other people sell it cheaper?
But what happens now that anyone, theoretically, can make a PC that runs the Mac OS? Psystar - which has a going IT support business - argues that it has purchased Leopard legitimately, and that Apple's insistence on running the OS on its hardware violates U.S. antitrust laws.
Psystar does have a precedent in its favor, a 1984 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that a software publisher can't require you to run an operating system on a specific type of hardware. The Supreme Court refused to review the case.
Apple has not commented on the upstart - and it may not have to. It can always sabotage the usurper by issuing updates that won't run on the alien machine, or that disable it. Apple has done that with iPhones that users have hacked to run on wireless carriers other than Apple's chosen, AT&T.;
Most users install operating system updates automatically by downloading them over the Internet, so this could be a no-brainer for Apple. Of course, Psystar could issue a patch to counter Apple's patch, and Apple could issue a counter-counter patch in its next release, but that's not much fun for users.
The saving grace for buyers who want to experiment is that this Mac "clone" can be transformed into a real Windows machine by slipping a Windows CD in the drive. So you have to bet only the cost of a new operating system, which is unlikely to affect anyone's retirement. To paraphrase an old John Updike essay, the OpenPC is progress with an escape hatch.
For more information, visit www.psystar.com.