The Return of the Clones

Is cloning dead? As a recent article at Mac OS Rumors suggests, Apple may be looking at getting back into the clone business. Taking any Apple rumor with a grain of salt, this does nonetheless open a whole new can of worms and speculation.

First, who would want to become a Mac OS clone maker? With the previous cloning debacle still fresh in everyone’s minds, any new company thinking of becoming Mac OS computer manufacturers would have to think twice. And then think again. Steve Jobs has a well-documented history of hating the idea of Mac clones. It does, after all, take money directly out of Apple’s pocket (or so the saying goes). And now that Apple has again returned to profitability, would the powers-that-be want to take this sort of risk?

Looking at it from Apple’s point of view is almost impossible with Steve Jobs at the helm. He changes his mind, it seems, as often as I change my socks. His temper and mood changes are the stuff of legend (and some great columns from Susan Howerter!) Would Steve seriously consider this a viable option? What would Apple have to gain from such a move? A look at Cloning history reveals that it would most likely cost Apple some business, though in today’s Macintosh market of increasing market share (thanks largely to both the iMac and a renewed advertising plan headed by Chiat-Day) perhaps Apple can now support more competition.

One of the areas Apple wanted the clones to build a customer base was in the home market. It is obvious that this would no longer be needed with Apple’s own iMac sales, continuing popularity of the product, and super strong advertising. Rather than build that market, companies like Power Computing went after Apple’s bread and butter sales, the professional and high-end systems. Power Computing not only did well by selling to that market, they really beat the living daylights out of Apple while doing so. Superior products, more options, bring the latest technologies to market far faster than Apple could hope to compete with, Power Computing was long on its way to winning almost all of Apple’s high-end users.

UMAX, on the other hand, did a fine job of attracting the home user. Problem was, however, that rather than grow the market (i.e., get new users rather than existing Mac users) UMAX simply sold and marketed their products to the installed user base. Not good for Apple, and it really did limit those who would buy from UMAX. And like Power Computing, UMAX did not really advertise outside established Mac publications. And let’s not forget Motorola, who tried to do a little of what both UMAX and Power Computing was doing, but never really seemed to catch on.

Here we are again, more than a year after Steve killed the clones, talking about the same old thing. Will clones return? If so, which companies would be willing to take that risk? Certainly not Power Computing, nor I think Motorola. UMAX, perhaps, though I tend to doubt it. So, really, we would be looking at a new influx of companies making a move on Apple. Perhaps a Dell (Not!) or a Gateway, creating a new generation of Macintosh clones. While either of these companies already have the infrastructures to support a Mac cloning business, I seriously do not think either would want to deal with a Steve Jobs run Apple.

But let’s assume for a moment that Apple does, indeed, open up the clones again. What market share does Apple hope these companies would open up for them? Again, Apple has the home market well underway with the iMac, and an upcoming take-it-anywhere product still under development and top secret. So that market is dead for any prospective clone maker.

Apple has not had a great recent history with high-end machines as of late. In fact, many of the graphic professionals I have talked with are somewhat upset with Apple’s current offerings. They want more options, something Apple seems to have no plans of offering. “At least six PCI slots or more!” cries the graphic professional. “Upgradable motherboards” they scream. “A G3, G4 multi-processor system!” is also heard in the wind. And the word from Apple? Not anytime soon, and don’t hold your breath.

But does Apple want to open this market to another Macintosh computer vendor? No way. There is too much money to be made there, with systems selling for $3,500 and up. That is simply too much revenue Apple does not want to part with. It is also one of the main reasons Apple killed the clones the first time around. Just ask Power Computing…

So where would a new breed of clone manufactures fit into the overall Macintosh market? Would any be willing to compete with Apple’s iMac success? Would they dare risk the ire of Steve Jobs by moving on the professional market? How many companies would want to take the chance of ramping up production costs only to have wishy-washy Apple decision-makers pull the rug out from under them in a year’s time if Apple hit hard times again? Very few, if any, I would think.

Of course, I don’t run Apple. Nor do I see the “Big Picture.” And with the recent success Apple has had as of late, I doubt anyone can predict what they have up their sleeves next (including any of the rumors sites). But a new Mac clone venture is still something worth pondering. Something I think most Mac users would initially think to be a great idea. (More choices and better prices for us!) But in the overall scheme of things, is this a wise more for Apple, and a good thing for the end user?

Your thoughts are welcomed.

Tim Robertson

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