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Should Mac OS X Be Open?

There's a little computer company in Florida called Psystar making cheap Macintosh clones, that thinks that OS X should be open. But Apple [AAPL] thinks the company may be the puppet of a larger enemy.

The Cupertino computer-maker sued Psystar in July for copyright infringement, after Pystar began selling an "Open Computer" loaded with a modified version of Apple's OS X software. Pystar countersued twice; first alleging that Apple's tight control over OS X violated anti-trust laws, and after those charges were dismissed, it alleged that Apple uses its software copyrights to infringe upon competition.

Apple thinks this little company going up against its rabid legal team comes off as a little suspicious? In court filings, it's been noted that Psystar's legal battle is being financially backed by a "silent third party" who wants to take down the burgeoning Mac movement. While there are no direct accusations in the filings, you can bet that one name in particular is floating around One Infinite Loop — a company with lots of cash and plenty of Apple-ire, and it probably begins with M- and ends with -icrosoft.

The way Psystar describes its impeteus for the suit comes off as both a fight for a fair market, and a fight for the democratization of the Mac. OS X. It argues that the OS can run on hardware that is much cheaper than Macs, but Apple engineers insinuate undocumented "stealthware" code into the OS to preclude it from running on non-Apple-approved hardware. For instance, it claims, that installing OS 10.5 on a non-dual-core Intel chip will produce an artificial kernel panic, shutting down the system. Psystar's goal: to have Apple's Mac OS X Leopard patents rendered invalid, which could theoretically open up the Mac clone market to bigger, above-board PC makers.

A few years ago, this case might have seemed like a long-shot, but with "business methods" patents now considered indefensible, Steve & Co. might be taking Psystar more seriously. That's thanks to a recent landmark legal case known as In re Bilski, that will cut down on the ability of technology companies to patent intangible products like software.

With Apple's meteoric rise in Mac marketshare, it's ironic that the biggest danger facing the company now could be too many Macs, and not too few. Poor Jobs; he probably thought he left the problems of the 90s behind.

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  • Steve McGee

    Too many macs could be a problem, especially if Apple can't support them well enough. I think the 'competence requirement' of potential consumers has decreased over the last few years for mac (and all computers). This means the burden of understanding how to use the device is pushed back on Apple. Maybe it's better to remain too expensive, too 'niche', for the mass computer market.

    I think it's a mistake that there is only one way to 'win' as a competitor; it's no necessarily best to dominate all segments, capture market share and revenue from everyone. After all, if the standard metaphor for business is war, it explains why businesses leverage themselves too much, cut profits too low, and abuse resources too much.

    Peacetime strategies result in competition that builds value on both sides. Of course the public is afraid of collusion, but to maintain the high-end, advanced-user position would simply be a sound strategy.