Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

What's wrong with a $399 Mac?

April 14, 2008: 7:39 AM ET

It's been almost a decade since Steve Jobs drove the last of the licensed Mac clones out of business, but that hasn't stopped bargain hunting users from trying to get the Mac experience without feeding Apple's hefty profit margins.

Persuading a generic PC to run OS X isn't that hard to do. Ever since Apple (AAPL) switched from PowerPC to Intel, hackers in the OSx86 movement have been playing cat-and-mouse with Cupertino, writing a series of patches and emulators to get around the Mac's Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI) and other built-in barriers to cloning.

But the $399 Mac compatible computer that hit the market this week is another matter. It's a cease-and-desist order waiting to happen.

The manufacturer is a small, Miami-based reseller of Voice-over-Internet, security and networking systems called Psystar. Its website invites you to order a PC "capable of running unmodified OS X Leopard kernels" with the following specs:

  • 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo
  • 2GB of DDR2 667 memory
  • Integrated Intel GMA 950 Graphics
  • 20x DVD+/-R Drive
  • 4 USB Ports
  • 250GB 7200RPM Drive

Basically, it's a Mac Mini with twice the memory at half the price. So what's not to love?

The problem for Psystar -- and anyone counting on them to stay in business and provide the support they promise -- is the second part of their offer: If you buy a copy of Leopard at the same time, they promise preinstall it for free.

That's where Apple's lawyers come in. Leopard's End User License Agreement (EULA) is pretty clear. Section 2A reads:

This License allows you to install, use and run one (1) copy of the Apple Software on a single Apple-labeled computer at a time.

And that's what's wrong with this $399 Mac.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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