Like all myths, the OpenMac has a basis from history

Does the company that made the $400 Mac clone exist? Maybe, maybe not. However, history shows that Mac clones have existed before. History also shows that it's possible to legally reverse engineer what makes the Mac unique. Here's the history behind the myth.

Yesterday, one of the big IT news stories was the debut of a Mac clone from a mysterious upstart company called Psystar. Now, less than 24 hours later, both Wired and The Guardian have dug into Psystar a little bit and it turns out the company and its rumored Open Computer Mac clone may be nothing more than a hoax.

Why would people be so quick to believe that a press release from a little company in the middle of nowhere could have a basis in reality? Well, first of all, the Mac has such a buzz around it, that there are plenty of people that would love to get their hands on Mac OS X, but don't want to cough up the premium to actually pay for the real thing. Plus, the existence of a Mac clone business helps justify the superiority of the OS to all of the Mac fanboys that are out there.

The truth is like most myths and hoaxes, there's usually a little bit of factual data and history behind it - enough to make it believable. In this case, there are two main points in history that would allow us to believe a Mac clone could appear out of nowhere. First, once upon a time, there were legitimate Mac clones walking the planet. Second, reverse engineering the technology to make a Mac clone has been done already - back in the early 80's when the first IBM PC clones appeared.

The Mac clone wars

When the Mac was first launched in 1984, it was a sensation. The whole GUI interface was new and exciting to a generation of computer users who stared at a green screen or a DOS text based screen. However, in a business environment, IBM still ruled the market. One of the ways it did so, was through all of the little clone companies like Compaq that had sprouted up around the PC and the AT.

People clamored for Mac clones. A couple of companies tried creating Mac clones in the mid-80's and early 90's. The main drawback however was the fact that much of the Mac operating system software was stored in onboard ROMs. These ROMs contained proprietary code that was copyrighted and nearly impossible to reverse engineer. So, the only way a company could make a Mac clone was to buy real Mac ROMs from Apple and place them in their machines. As you can guess, Apple priced them in such as way as to make the semi-Macs not all that appealing.

By 1995, with Steve Jobs banished from the company, Apple decided to try to create an actual Mac clone market. The idea was to move Apple out of the hardware business and into the software business. Apple licensed Mac ROMs and OS 7 at much better terms to companies such as Power Computing.  These companies in turn created MAC clones that looked more like PCs than Macintoshes. Power Computing was the most popular Mac clone company, but other companies such as UMAX, a maker of scanners primarily, and Motorola also made Mac clones.

The clones never did great business, but they did sell well enough to dent Apple revenue. When Steve Jobs got back into Apple, one of the first things he did was pull the plug on the licensing deals. Apple shipped Mac OS 8 and wouldn't license it to the clone makers, rendering them obsolete. Apple wound up buying Power Computing and effectively wiped out the Mac clones.

OEMs: 1 Clones: 0 for those keeping score at home.

Reverse engineering Macs today - and Phoenix circa 1983

When Apple moved the Mac platform from the PowerPC to Intel CPUs along with other PC architecture including ATI video and PCI-Express buses, it removed a lot of the engineering hurdles that clone makers had to do to create Mac clones. The Mac became so PC-like, that we see today how easy it is to run Windows - the flagship OS for a PC compatible - on a Mac. So, what prevents Mac OS X from running on a Dell?

Primarily what does it is the BIOS of a Mac. Or, more specifically the lack of one. When a PC boots, it does so from the BIOS, which is a ROM chip inside the computer that checks things out as the computer starts, and then passes the information to the operating system which continues the startup process.

A Mac doesn't have a traditional PC-style BIOS. Instead what it has is called an EFI. EFI stands for Extensible Firmware Interface. This does essentially the same thing as BIOS. It starts the computer up, tests things out, loads the basics to talk to the hard drives and stuff, but is different enough from a BIOS that some operating systems can't boot without it. Mac OS X 10.4 and later require EFI to be in place in order to boot.

Windows Vista 64 can boot off of an EFI based computer natively, where the 32-bit version still requires BIOS. To run Windows, Apple gets around this on a Mac by emulating BIOS. Vista 32 and XP never realize they're running on a Mac - it looks like a PC to them.

Being 'extensible', Apple can control the EFI and modify it as it needs, much the same way that Dell, HP and others can flash a BIOS, only more so. There's far too much technical detail to go into here about EFI, but suffice it to say that it's different enough that Apple can use it to block any potential Mac clones that come to market.

However, it's technically possible to reverse engineer the way Apple uses EFI. Twenty-five years ago, Phoenix did exactly this with the BIOS in the IBM PC. IBM was making a lot of money off of the PC, but because it was made from off the shelf parts, the only unique thing about it was the BIOS.

Phoenix used a clean-room technique to reverse engineer the BIOS and create its own. Rather than decompiling and copying code directly, one set of engineers went over IBM technical manuals and code to figure out how the BIOS worked, and then described the behavior to an entire other set of engineers. They in turn created the first Phoenix BIOS. IBM wasn't very appreciative about this and sued, but Phoenix won. Twenty-five years later, IBM is out of the PC business and the clones won.

OEMS: 1 Clones: 1

Apple isn't the only company using EFI to start their computers. Gateway has done it, and other companies are also exploring it. So, to make an effective MacIntel clone, all it takes is come clean-room engineering about how Apple uses EFI to boot Mac OS X, and modify EFI on a PC to boot OS X. Include Mac OS supported Ethernet, video cards, and other hardware in your clone box and you're done.

Apple's only recourse is to ship a patch to OS X that updates a Mac's EFI and busts yours. Then you just copy and patch again. This is what Psystar is supposed to have done.

What history teaches us

As you can see - when Psystar sent out a press release announcing a $400 Mac clone, there really wasn't a historical reason to doubt that it was real. Mac clones existed in the past, so why couldn't one exist now? Apple has made the Mac PC-like enough now that it runs Windows, so why not, with a little reverse engineering like Phoenix did in the 80's, modify what little unique remains to a Mac and put it in a PC? Whether Psystar exists and actually did it or not may be questionable, but the fact that it has been done before, means that you can bet it WILL be done in the future.