What Apple can learn from Psystar

David Braue
20 November, 2009
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Movie critic Roger Ebert, a thoughtful and literate man whose well-considered reviews I have read attentively for years, often says that the value of a movie is not what it’s about – but how it’s about what it’s about.

In other words, a presumably terrible movie can be a success if it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, but tells its story well. Similarly, an ambitiously constructed, well-funded, should-be-excellent movie falls flat if it’s not acted well or doesn’t develop its characters properly.

This idea came to mind as I considered the apparently inevitable legal demise of Psystar, the upstart Mac clone maker that attracted – and kept – the attention of Apple for all the wrong reasons. This week, Psystar’s exclamation point-like logo seemed ironically appropriate.

Conceptually, I have always had a small soft spot for Psystar. No, not because they make cheap Mac clones and that I particularly wanted to buy their products, and not because I thought what they were doing was particularly right.

No, my interest in Psystar was mainly like my interest in St Kilda’s (failed) attempt to win this year’s Grand Final, or Hayley’s likely-to-fail attempt to beat Stan in the Australian Idol final this weekend: I like a good fight no matter what the realistic odds.

Adding to the excitement: earlier Mac clone makers’ ultimately fruitless efforts to justify themselves were light on specifics (apart from authorisation from Apple, although we’ll skip that little fact for now). By contrast, Psystar seemed to have the legal strategy – and the curiously deep pockets – to at least force Apple to justify itself for a change.

And, for over a year now, the saga has continued, until being pushed to a premature end when both companies filed for summary judgments to keep them out of court. In the end, of course, Psystar’s efforts were for naught: with the California judge ruling in Apple’s favour on the charge of copyright infringement, it seems highly unlikely the Florida upstart will be able to muster another attack, even though its Florida legal action is still pending.

Yet while Psystar has mainly succeeded in providing legal precedent to support Apple’s the status quo, some interesting things have come out of these proceedings. Apple computers are cheaper now than they were six months ago. You can now buy software that lets you install Mac OS X on non-Apple systems, although dodgy driver support apparently limits the whole experience.

And, although we can’t say whether this was strictly due to Psystar, Apple has frustrated an entire generation of would-be hackintosh makers by designing Mac OS X 10.6.2 so it will explicitly not run on netbooks based around Intel’s Atom processor. Well, not perhaps frustrated so much as inconvenienced: hackers recently found a way to get the functionality back, starting yet another cat-and-mouse game that will keep Apple busy.

Ultimately, the message is clear. You can buy a hamburger anywhere – but if you want a Big Mac, you have to eat at McDonald’s. If you want a Mac, it’s clear you’ll have to buy it from Apple. Which, despite the philosophical appeal of Psystar’s position, is not necessarily a bad thing – especially after Apple’s price reductions put its products much closer to the “reasonable” range on the pricing continuum.

Yet “reasonable” still seems high on some measures: as Ian Paul correctly points out, many people will be questioning just how much the Mac experience is worth when even its entry-level laptop costs twice as much as an alternative option.

Sure, Macs work better – and Apple will argue that the half-priced Windows 7 netbook isn’t actually an alternative. But ask any battler out there trying to justify computer expenditure: if buying a Mac means they can’t pay their electricity bill for the year, even the greatest Apple experience is a short-lived pleasure.

Cast in this light, Psystar’s main legacy will be the point on which its whole business was based: now that they’re based on the same components as the Windows PC next door, there is no inherent reason Macs should cost more – on a pure technology basis.

That doesn’t mean Macs will necessarily match Windows systems on price. In what may ultimately be seen as a push for value transparency of sorts, this whole Psystar episode will push Apple to make sure it is constantly offering more value to justify its pricing.

From where does this value come? The look of the systems, of course, is distinctively gorgeous, and something that the PC makers still haven’t seemed to figure out; I have spent time playing around with all-in-one Windows systems at a variety of retail outlets, and they still just don’t have that certain something.

As for the other value Apple systems add? Discussions along these lines have typically focused on the value of the software Apple bundles, as well as the increased productivity and reduction in hair loss from a system that runs well and stays that way. It was a good (and true) argument, although the strong reception for Windows 7 and its more-stable design may well have eroded Apple’s advantage in the reliability stakes.

Where, then, can Apple continue adding value? Well, with the release of Snow Leopard and the shift towards 64-bit capable processors, Apple is in the unique position to be on the cusp of enabling the world’s first fully 64-bit mainstream desktop environment.

Sure, there are 64-bit flavours of Windows as well, but Microsoft remains too wedded to its support for legacy systems to burn that bridge just yet; most people continue to hobble along in 32-bit glory. If Apple can consolidate its perceived brand cachet advantage with some solid technical specs to boot – and release massively faster iLife and iWork applications redone in 64-bit glory early next year – it will be able to push that line even more. Apple can turn the corner to 64 bits while Microsoft is still trying to figure out how to spell it.

Psystar proved once and for all that Mac OS X doesn’t need to run on a Mac. It also proved that customers will respond to the opportunity to buy cheaper Macs if they have it. That’s why Apple needs to keep Ebert’s saying in mind as it moves forward in the post-Psystar world: It’s no longer enough to say that Apple computers deliver a better experience; it’s how they continue to deliver that experience, and what that experience consists of, on which Apple will be judged in the future. Although the Psystar win lends support for Apple’s efforts on the former point, it is the company’s success on the latter point that will ultimately colour its market success in the long term.

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