Not long ago, I got my hands on one of the slowest, ugliest, and least-user-friendly Macintosh laptops the world has ever seen — and I love it. My Mac sports a couple of features that others can't match. First, it's tiny and lighter than Apple's vaunted MacBook Air. Even better, its portability doesn't carry a premium; it set me back only about $500, a third of what Apple charges for the Air. I know what you're thinking: When did Apple, which is known as much for its inflated price tags as its aesthetics, start making a cheap, underpowered, ungainly, ultraportable computer?
Apple didn't make it. I did. The machine I'm using is known as a "Hackintosh" — actually a 9-inch Dell netbook that I've hacked to run Apple's Macintosh operating system. Though Apple's clever commercials suggest a vast gulf between Macs and PCs, in reality, they have similar guts. Ever since Apple adapted its elegant OS to run on Intel's processors, gadget hounds have been working together to break down the walls between Macs and PCs.
Apple — surprise, surprise — doesn't look kindly on the Hackintosh movement. But this hasn't slowed down the momentum. What's more, Mac hackers suggest a novel model for innovation. Through the Web's distributed intelligence, customers are working together to build precisely the features and products they want from Apple.
Mac hacking is not for the faint of heart. At one point, I found myself Googling for shamanistic hexadecimal codes to trick my Windows machine into booting up an Apple disc. And don't get me started on what it took to set up Wi-Fi. All the while, though, I was helped along by the many experts in online forums who had encountered — and solved — the very problems that were tripping me up.
In the end, I had a crude version of the Mac tablet computer that the rumor mill always says is just around the corner. This despite Apple's software license restrictions, its efforts to shut down sites that explain how to create a Hackintosh, and even its insistence that it isn't planning on revolutionizing the low, but hottest-selling, end of the computer business. "We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk, and our DNA will not let us ship that," CEO Steve Jobs told investors last year.
But Jobs has a history of dismissing the very ideas that his elves are developing in secret, and Apple, which can trace its roots to early hacker culture, has been known to follow its most faithful tinkerers. To take a recent example: When it first released the iPhone, the company prohibited third-party programs from running on the device. But hackers easily broke through that restriction, and customers began downloading apps in droves. At first, Apple tried to block this movement, but in short order, it relented. This proved wise — its App Store became an instant hit.
It's not just Apple that has done well by letting its customers take the lead. The best online social applications often watch their users for innovations. Twitter, for instance, instituted its system to let users message one another — known as "@replies" — only after Twitterers invented it. MySpace hadn't originally planned to let people add custom Web code to their profiles; only when the company saw folks flocking to the site to do just that did it tout the feature.
Turning a netbook into a Mac certainly isn't a task for technical naïfs, but with the right parts, plenty of patience, and lots of Googling, it's now possible to make a machine worthy of a Steve Jobs keynote. Apple would be wise to pay attention.
Farhad Manjoo covers technology for Slate and is the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fast Society.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.