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Wednesday, 21 May 2008 10:29

Mac 'cloner' Psystar pushes peck of pickled patches

Psystar, the company that caused a stir by offering a low-cost computer running Mac OS X, is now providing a range of software patches via its web site. Will Apple finally respond?

Psystar, a Florida based startup, was at the centre of a massive furore last month for daring to release Mac 'clones' (actually assembled from off-the-shelf hardware) pre-loaded with Mac OS X Leopard.

Now it's upping the ante against Apple in a big way, while silencing critics who claim Psystar's machines will never have any patches available, by releasing a slew of updates.

While some are specifically for the hardware Psystar provides - such as the network interface card - others appear to be official Apple updates that have been determined to be safe when applied to Mac OS X running on non-Apple hardware – are alarm bells ringing for Apple's lawyers?

Examples of the latter include iLife Support 8.2 and Security Update 2008-002 v1.1.

Computers currently being shipped by Psystar have the updates preinstalled if the customer purchases Leopard with the hardware. (Other options are Ubuntu, Windows XP, and Vista.)

Furthermore, Psystar has announced its intention to deliver future updates via Mac OS X's Software Update feature. This "will require all of our existing users to download a small update manually and install it to enable this functionality," the company has warned.

The idea of messing with Software Update is superficially attractive, as it will allow owners of Psystar's Open and OpenPro computers to update the operating system and related software as easily as they are used to doing on a Mac.

Apple generally takes a hard line on other organisations redistributing its software, but has curiously remained completely silent on Psystar... so far. Yet even when magazines offer to carry updates on their cover discs at no cost, they usually get the brush-off from Apple.

The fact that Psystar is pre-installing Mac OS X on its hardware was expected to result in Apple launching legal action against the company, as the licence only allows its use on Apple-branded computers.

So, are Psystar in for some serious psychological – and legal battles – with Apple, or is Psystar the warped brainchild of Steve Jobs and is a bizarre Apple front? Please read on to page 2.

Even if the company is simply loading a disk image onto each computer it sells and therefore is not in breach of the licence terms as it doesn't actually run Mac OS X on a non-Apple computer, it's hard to argue that the disk image could have been built without flouting the licence.

The apparent absence of legal action has led some to speculate that Psystar is an Apple front, but that seems a long shot to me.

In related news, Psystar has announced the selection of a new case for the Open. The company describes it as having "a familiar and stylish mesh front", though you'd never mistake it for a Mac Pro.

Although the Open starts at $US400, having Leopard preinstalled adds another $US155 to the price. Even then, the specification still does not include items that are standard on Macintoshes such as a wireless LAN card (add $US99) or Bluetooth (add $45 for an external dongle), bringing the total to $US699.

That doesn't sound so cheap anymore, and puts the Open squarely between Apple's two configurations of the Mac mini which sell for $US599 and $799.

On the other hand, the Open still has a faster processor, more RAM and a more capacious hard drive. And it's more expandable. Just about anything's more expandable than a Mac mini, but how much expandability do you need?

Looking at the history of the Windows PCs I've owned, my current system has benefited from a new and larger hard drive, but that was a replacement rather than an upgrade. I've also fitted a TV tuner card, but the software isn't a patch EyeTV on the Mac, and my iMac's screen is far better than the PC's.

Making any other changes will now mean replacing the motherboard, CPU, RAM and graphics card. I'd also be inclined to switch to SATA drives, so there's little reason not to replace the unit entirely. I suppose I could keep the case, but it's hardly a work of art.

So, am I anti-upgrade? Please continue to page 3.

The story was much the same with its predecessor. Somewhere along the line it got a replacement video card to keep up with the hardware required by games, and that was it. By the time anything more substantial was required, wholesale replacement was a better option.

But don't think I'm anti-upgrade. Going further back, my Power Mac 7500 did benefit from the relatively open hardware.

I was able to significantly extend its life by upgrading the CPU (with a card purchased from a clone distributor's closing-down sale), adding a USB card so I could use more recent mice and other peripherals, and a fast SCSI card to drive what for the time was a larger and speedier hard drive than the internal SCSI bus would normally support.

The problem is that hardware specs are changing faster than ever, so a new computer every two or three years seems to make more sense than continually swapping out subsystems. I'm just not convinced that upgradability is as important as it was last century.

Before anyone berates me over the environmental issues, a PC's case is probably the most easily recycled component, so I don't have a guilty conscience about that. Doing something with those circuit boards is a bigger challenge, and I reckon my strategy produces less hard-to-recycle waste than the alternative.

So, the world will be waiting to see how Apple responds to the latest chapter in Psystar's challenge. Unless there's some action from Cupertino soon, Apple may find it impossible to get the genie back in the bottle as other companies follow Psystar's lead.

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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