Psystar’s legacy: Another cat-and-mouse game for Apple?

David Braue
4 December, 2009
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With Apple and Psystar announcing a rather far-reaching agreement in their ongoing legal fight this week, it’s clear that Psystar may well have been taken down for the KO at last. Yet as the paramedics bring out the stretcher and revelations emerge that the company actually wasn’t doing much business at all, could Psystar be casting a knowing, secretive wink to its fans?

After all, when it’s all done and dusted, Psystar’s mysterious financial backers will have emerged from its scuffle with Apple clutching the code base for Rebel RFI, a standalone tool that lets Mac OS X be installed on computers made by Companies Other Than Apple.

If Rebel RFI is allowed to continue being sold, and is updated so it includes better driver compatibility than it currently does, it could find a small but important niche amongst computer enthusiasts who want to find new ways to bring life to their clapped-out Windows machines.

Whether Rebel RFI does, indeed, escape unscathed remains to be seen, but if it does, it could well kick off yet another game of cat and mouse as Apple finds itself fighting yet another coding war with the people who are determined to counter its long-established policy of locking up content and applications so they only work the way Apple wants them to work.

Remember Napster? Popular for several years until it was pulverised out of existence by a crushing court case, Napster nonetheless revolutionised the distribution of music, proving that customers wanted an easier way to get their songs and paving the way for massively successful efforts like Apple’s own iTunes Store.

Then there’s Palm, which figured out how to make iTunes respond lovingly to devices made by Companies Other Than Apple – specifically, its Pre smartphone. Apple managed to parry that attack several times with a series of point-point upgrades that specifically closed that loophole, and it now seems that Palm is taking a different approach as it seeks to develop a more reliable strategy.

Don’t forget those determined hackers, who want to run Mac OS X 10.6.2 on their underpowered netbooks so badly that they rapidly figured out how to disable Apple’s own coded method for disabling the operating system on underpowered netbooks.

Or ‘DVD Jon’, the Scandinavian pain-in-the-backside for encryption vendors who figured out how to get movies off of encrypted DVDs and then applied his knowledge to challenges including breaking Apple’s FairPlay DRM and most recently helming an iTunes clone (and e-tail back-end) called Doubletwist.

These rebels without causes are helping rapidly reshape the computer environment that we use every day, ensuring that content and computing don’t become totally dominated by the companies that produce them. There’s no doubt that their efforts are watched very closely – both by lawyers ready to pounce like attack dogs, and by executives who cannot help but stay continually aware of the market’s desire for a free (meaning ‘unencumbered’, not necessarily ‘zero cost’) computing experience.

Whether Psystar will join these and other innovators that keep Apple and other companies on their toes, remains to be seen; it is always possible that Apple will squash them like grapes and shred the very hard drive platters on which Rebel RFI was created. It will most certainly alter Mac OS X 10.6.3 to address Rebel RFI’s method for unlocking the operating system.

But as long as Psystar is out there, we can be its developers will be working to keep Rebel RFI working – and there will be an army of developers willing to take up the cause should Psystar be forced out of the picture entirely, and release the source code to the general community online.

The result can only be another stage in the curious game of cat-and-mouse that Apple must, by the very nature of its business model, continue playing. And while Apple has certainly enjoyed legal success of late, Psystar’s final chapter in the evolution of Mac computing has yet to be written. Psystar may be a mouse, but – as Sylvester and Tweety’s unending pursuit proved – mice can squeeze into holes that cats can’t. No matter the outcome, it will be fascinating to watch the chase.

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