Truth about Mac clone maker Psystar hard to pin down

The Baltimore Sun

Though the blogging frenzy over whether would-be Mac clone maker Psystar is real has died down in the past few days, no one has determined the truth beyond the shadow of a doubt.

After a series of crazy developments last week, including an address that changed several times within a few days and a credit card payment company that abruptly terminated its relationship with Psystar, many in the Mac blogosphere declared the upstart company a hoax.

But over the weekend and into Monday, defenders of Psystar attributed its troubles to poor planning. They argued that the fledgling company had failed to anticipate the huge demand for cheap Mac clones they faced when news of Psystar hit the Web 10 days ago.

Psystar posted reassuring messages on its Web site. A Friday item headlined "Store up and running, orders shipped" promised that orders placed in the first week at Psystar's online store would be shipped starting this week.

On Tuesday, Psystar posted a message and photo trumpeting its new headquarters (independently verified by several news sites).

The ultimate proof would come when customers began to receive their orders; I have yet to read of a Psystar machine successfully delivered, but the first shipments might not arrive for a few days.

Even if Psystar is legit, what it is doing - selling PC boxes capable of running the Mac operating system without Apple's blessing - raises many other questions.

First, what can Apple do about it? What should Apple do about it? As many have pointed out, Apple's EULA (End-user license agreement) specifically forbids running Mac OS X on anything but Apple's own hardware.

One would assume that Apple's lawyers would drop the hammer on Psystar in short order. Yet Apple has not said anything regarding Psystar.

Apple's EULA restrictions might well violate antitrust laws in the United States and the European Union. These laws look unfavorably upon the "tying" of one product to another in such a way that the customer cannot use a competitor's product. That's how Microsoft got into trouble when it "bundled" its Internet Explorer browser with Windows a decade ago.

Apple could still prevail against Psystar, but victory would not be guaranteed. At worst (for Apple, at least), Mac clone-making would be declared legal and more companies would start doing it.

After fighting for years to make headway in the overall PC market, the last thing Apple needs is competition within the Mac market. On the other hand, Mac customers would almost surely benefit. In addition to less expensive Mac imitations, customers might see slightly lower prices on Apple machines.

But who would buy them?

A few devoted Mac users might abandon the Apple brand for a cheaper clone, but I suspect most would remain in the fold, particularly since those clones would not have Apple's stamp of approval.

But switchers could be a very different story. Folks fresh from the Windows PC world might see Mac clones as an ideal compromise, a way to get the more user-friendly, less virus-plagued Mac operating system without paying top dollar for Apple's offerings.

Psystar's hardware designs don't look as nice as Apple's and could suffer from assorted compatibility issues, but they do cost much less. For many PC users, cost is king.

Apple always has refused to play in the lower end of the PC market. "We can't ship junk," CEO Steve Jobs said at an iMac product unveiling last August.

Clone customers shopping for price could help boost the Mac's overall share of the PC market, but the danger lies in clone makers selling mid-range and high-end machines more cheaply than Apple. If Apple loses those customers, it loses profits.

At this point, whether Psystar shuts its doors in two weeks or becomes merely the first of many Mac clone makers is less consequential than that the concept that a company could make Mac clones and get away with it.

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