Cloner’s lesson for Apple

Matthew JC. Powell
23 April, 2008
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Psystar, a small company in Florida that hasn’t yet opened its offices, made ripples around the tech world last week by saying it would offer a Mac clone somewhat cheaper than what Apple charges for comparable hardware. In spite of reports that the company kept changing its physical address, and in spite of several site outages, and in spite of the company being dumped by its credit card provider, the orders apparently kept flowing in. The price difference is obviously a factor in this demand for a Mac clone, but surely not enough to offset the unease of dealing with a company with that kind of record. Obviously Psystar is offering something people want — a lot.

Why? In order to make a clone computer that Mac OS X understands, Psystar is using virtually all the same components Apple uses. It doesn’t have the Jonathan Ive industrial design flair (by a long shot). And even if the company is legit and gets away with its blatant violation of the Mac OS X End-User License Agreement, there’s still the issue of warranty. Many third-party system assemblers provide warranty for their own workmanship but not for individual components — so if the graphics card goes bung you don’t go to the guy who sold you the computer, you’re off chasing the card manufacturer. It’s unclear from Psystar’s web site what its policy is in that regard.

Apple, at least, warrants the whole widget.

With all the risk inherent in the transaction and the fact that you’re only getting essentially the same machine as Apple will sell you, there must be something more to it. And there is.

Expansion.

As mentioned, while the Mac mini comes with an integrated graphics chipset (which means that the graphics system is using the same RAM as the rest of the computer, so it’s not great for gamers wanting the immersive 3D experience) the Open Computer comes with an NVIDIA GeForce 8600. How that compares to the cards that come on other Mac models is irrelevant — the point is, it’s a card.

When a better one comes out, you can change it.

And there are other slots, so you can put different cards in.

Likewise, upgrading RAM and storage on the Open Computer are tasks a reasonably competent user can perform. The Mac mini, by comparison, is pretty much hermetically sealed.

It has long been an article of faith from Apple that "people don’t upgrade their Macs". When customers, particularly at the consumer/retail level, need a higher-performing machine, they go buy a new one. All that fiddling with cards and drivers and Torx screws and the rest of it is for the professional users and the Intel PC crowd.

Hey Apple, guess what? You’re making Intel PCs now. You have a different bunch of customers, and they want different stuff.

The highest-spec Mac mini is $1368, and the lowest-spec Mac Pro is $3289. In between are machines that, by necesity, come with a display so they’re not really comparable.

Is it so hard to imagine that there might be customers who want more than the Mac mini can offer them, but don’t want to spend as much as a Mac Pro costs, and also want to choose their own display? It seems quite reasonable to me. Just as it seems reasonable to me that someone might like a system that is capable of expanding with their needs, but doesn’t need to start with a 2.8GHz Quad-Core Xeon processor.

For all its apparent shaky ground in so many areas (not the least of which, let us remind ourselves, is that installing Leopard on one of its products is a direct violation of Apple’s EULA and may well therefore be illegal) Psystar is offering those customers what they want — a cheap, expandable Mac. And customers — apparently lots of customers — are buying it.

Imagine how many customers there might be for such a machine that did have the Apple industrial design, and the Apple warranty, and came from 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino.

The Open Computer addresses a niche that Apple is not currently addressing in the market. Despite what Apple may say it’s quite possible that Psystar is finding customers for Mac OS X that Apple would not have found with its current hardware offerings.

I don’t believe that if such a machine were offered by Apple it would significantly affect sales of Mac Pros (which, no doubt, is Apple’s fear). The pro users who want that kind of power will still go for the top-end workstation. If it does mean that some of the Mac Pro’s low-end customers start buying the mid-range expandable Mac then the Pros will be happier because their order will be filled more quickly. Surely there’s a cost associated with having to offer the single-procesor option on the Mac Pro? Has someone done a cost-benefit analysis on this?

More recently, Psystar has begun offering the OpenPro, a version of the Open Computer more comparable in specifications to a Mac Pro. That, quite likely would be pinching customers Apple can reasonably expect to get, and Apple has every reason to call the lawyers. Back in the 1990s when Apple decided to license its platform to third parties in hopes of expanding its user base, the cloners by and large went for the same customers Apple had traditionally targetted, which caused no end of consternation in Cupertino. Psystar’s release of the OpenPro is a reminder of those dark times.

Personally, I’d like to se Apple license its platform again. There are markets, such as large enterprises, where Apple has not historically been very good at attracting business. For that matter, if an order for 5000 MacBook Pros came tomorrow it’s unlikely Apple would even have the manufacturing capacity to meet it in the kind of time frame enterprise demands without seriously inconveniencing other customers. (Remember when you couldn’t buy a Power Mac G5 for love or money because Virginia Tech wanted 1100 of them to build a supercomputer?) Finding a partner that was good at selling to enterprise and had manufacturing capacity of its own would be a good solution.

If Apple is wise, it will listen to the signs the market is sending it via Psystar: there are customers out there, looking for a system you’re currently not offering. If you build it, they wil come.

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