The Authorized Macintosh Clone Legacy
Low End Mac Staff - 2011.11.04
Over the years, Apple has been advised to split itself into separate hardware and software companies, the theory being that the software company would better be able to compete with Microsoft by licensing the Mac OS to other manufacturers.
Apple never went down that path, but it did attempt to grow Mac OS market share in the mid 1990s with an authorized Macintosh clone program. The first clone came from Radius in March 1995, followed in April by Power Computing, a company formed specifically to create Mac clones while trying to copy Dell's build-to-order, direct shipment model. Motorola, Umax, DayStar Digital, and APS Technologies were just a few brands in the clone market.
There were some good aspects to the clone program, and some manufacturers brought innovative new ideas and designs to the Macintosh community, but for the most part the clones were sold on the basis of price, which invariably offered more power for less money than Apple's own computers. Despite a $50 per machine license fee, the hardware competition nearly destroyed Apple, and it was one of the first things to go after Steve Jobs' return at the end of 1996. (See Apple Squeezes Mac Clones Out of the Market for more on the end of the clone era.)
Today our staff shares its experiences with various clones and looks at some of the new niches Macintosh clones filled.
Alan Zisman (Zis Mac): The first "Mac" I bought was a Motorola StarMax clone, powered by a PowerPC 603e CPU running at 160 MHz; I bought it (in 1997) for a number of reasons - while I was primarily a Windows-user (with some playing around with early Linux versions), I had always seen Windows as an awkward attempt to bring a Mac-like experience to the PC platform - the Mac OS was the gold standard.
The Motorola clone was less expensive than equivalent Macs at the time, while running the same then-current Mac System 7.5.5 operating system. Unlike "real" Macs, it connected to some standard PC peripherals - PS/2 mouse and keyboard, VGA display. That was handy, since it meant I could use stuff that I already owned.
Moreover, the publication that I wrote for, Business in Vancouver (for whom I still write a regular "High Tech Office" column), had recently bought a bunch of these, replacing a newsroom full of Mac Pluses, I believe.
It was a nice performer - easily as perky as my 166 MHz Pentium. But soon after I bought it, it became clear that it's future was limited: Apple released a nice Mac OS 7.6 version, and while it ran on the StarMax, it wasn't officially supported. Soon after, OS 8.0 was released; the various clone manufacturer's licenses allowed them to use System 7.x, and Apple was unwilling to extend that license to the new OS. (Apparently, cloner Umax had a license for OS 8, though it expired in 1998.) Motorola stopped selling Mac clones in 1997.
I remain interested in running Mac OS on non-Apple hardware; this became easier to do when Apple moved to the Intel platform. Apple has taken vendors to court who tried to sell non-Apple systems running Mac OS X, most notably its 2008 suit of Florida-based Psystar. Apple has taken no formal notice, however, of individuals making so-called hackintoshes for personal use.
Dan Knight (Mac Musings): I remember using a Power Computing Power 120 at work for a few weeks in 1995. We'd been using Power Mac 7100s in the design department and wanted to see what these clones were all about. Well, it overheated and had the same build quality as a cheap PC - definitely not up to Apple standards - so back it went.
After a Mac Plus, which I used from 1990 through mid 1993, and a Centris 610, which I used from mid 93 to mid 98, I got my first PowerPC "Mac", a Umax SuperMac J700, bought at fire sale prices as Umax was exiting the clone business. This was much closer to Apple build quality, and it used the same CPU daughter cards as Apple's PCI Power Macs, so I was eventually able to replace the 180 Mhz 604e with faster and faster G3 cards. I was so impressed with it that I later bought a SuperMac S900, the tower version of the J700 with even more PCI slots. I used these until early 2001, when I got my 400 MHz Titanium PowerBook G4, which lasted 5-1/2 years.
I have a little experience with Motorola StarMax clones, and the left about as positive an impression on me as the Power 120.
Perhaps the most innovative clone was the DayStar Genesis MP, the first "Mac" with multiple processors. I hear these were built like tanks, and very few apps were ever written to use more than one CPU with the Classic Mac OS. Still, Photoshop power users and video editors jumped at the version built around four 150 MHz 604e CPUs. Apple was so impressed that it licensed the technology from DayStar and used it in some Power Mac 8600 and 9600 models - long before the first dual CPU Power Mac G4s arrived in Mid 2000. Power Computing and Umax also licensed the technology for use in some of their clones.
I ended up picking up the entire original line of SuperMac computers, adding a compact C500 desktop (just 4" tall) and C600 minitower, a machine that I still use sometimes for working with old hard drives.
Leaman Crews (Plays Well with Others): My only real experience with Mac clones was with the Umax C500. When I was working in the newspaper business, we bought a couple of these at the fire sale prices. They were attractive little machines, and the VGA port was very much welcome in an era where Apple was using proprietary connectors on their Power Macs. [Editor's note: Apple introduced its own 15-pin video connector with the Mac II in 1987 and only went to VGA in 1999 with the Blue & White Power Mac G3. I believe every clone had VGA ports, and many supported both.]
We had nothing but trouble with our C500s. They would just freeze (no cursor or mouse input accepted, clock stops) two to three times a day. It got to be routine - and definitely got the staff remembering to do Cmd-S to Save as much as possible!
When I moved on to the IT field full-time, I found a couple dozen C500s waiting for me at my new job. They all seemed to share the same problem - locking up regularly and for no apparent reason.
We also had some of the Umax towers (the J700, I presume), but I didn't get any hands-on experience with those. Apparently those ran much better. With G3 upgrades and XPostFacto, they were viable machines well into the 21st century.
Overall, I think Steve Jobs did the right thing by effectively killing the clones upon his return by refusing to grant clone licenses for OS 8.x and higher. The move to clones was an act of desperation in Apple's "beleaguered" days, trying to copy a business plan that had worked so well for Microsoft a decade earlier - but way too late for it to be effective for Apple. The clones cut into Apple's biggest profit center at the time (computer hardware sales), and with the generally poor quality of the machines, they didn't exactly spread the Mac gospel beyond the faithful.
Charles Moore (several columns): My first and only Mac clone was a Umax SuperMac S900, purchased as a bare-bones, brand new leftover in 2000 from Other World Computing's erstwhile build-to-order used/open box Macintosh store for $300. The S900 was Umax's biggest, baddest high-end 6 PCI slot minitower machine that used basically the same Tsunami motherboard as the Power Mac 9500/9600.
My new SuperMac arrived well packed and in perfect condition - brand new as advertised. I added a scrounged 15" multiscan VGA monitor, a likewise acquired 200 MHz 604e card, and a big video-capture PCI card that one of my offspring had picked up somewhere. I also had six RAM modules - no two of them exactly alike, but happily in non-identical pairs of 32 MB, 16 MB, and 8 MB respectively. Combined with the 16 MB of RAM soldered to the S900's motherboard, that gave me roughly 131 MB of RAM according to the "About This Computer" dialog, which was plenty to run Mac OS 9 Classic decently.
I had originally ordered a 4x CD ROM drive ($30) with the S900, but these units turned out to be out of stock, so rather than hold up the order, I opted for a Sony 2x CD300 drive for $15.
I had tentatively planned to get a G3 or G4 processor upgrade for the S900 in order to run OS X but never got around to doing that, so OS 9.1 was the last OS version I installed on the machine. The 200 MHz 604e did remarkably well running OS 9, and the S900 served as a backup to my workhorse 233 MHz WallStreet PowerBook for a couple of years. Its main shortcoming, once I got some hard drive issues sorted, out was that it was noisy, and I preferred the quiet PowerBook, although performance running OS 9 on both machines was not radically different, and I never had a really decent video card for the S900.
The 7200 rpm 2.15 GB Barracuda hard drive ($59) that I ordered with the S900 turned out to be troublesome, and eventually I replaced it with a scrounged 4 GB unit, the brand of which eludes my memory right now. I also added a FireWire PCI card adapter.
One big advantage of the S900 compared with its Power Mac 9500/9600 counterparts was that it was a lot easier to work on, with quick and easy access to the internals. I liked it better than a 9500 we had here at the time.
The S900 was the second-last desktop Mac I ever owned, followed by a Power Mac G4 Cube that I owned for about six months in 2001 before swapping it even for a year-old Pismo PowerBook that I still have in regular service, albeit substantially hot rodded.
I've used the past tense here, but in fact I still have the S900. It hasn't been booted up in two or three years, and I expect the PRAM battery is knackered by now, but the computer itself is still in excellent condition.
Dan Bashur (Apple, Tech, and Gaming): Although I have never used a clone, I clearly remember that era. It was not a great period for Apple, at a time when market share had already plunged to the low single digits (roughly 2-4% of the personal computer market if I recall). There was one great positive that came out of the clone era though - the creation of multiprocessor Macs. DayStar pioneered this with the DayStar Genesis, and this was quickly licensed to Apple for use in the 9500/180MP.
Apple certainly grew the multiprocessor approach to computing, and although the G3s were skipped after the 604/604e-based Power Macintosh 9500 and 9600 multiprocessors models (along with other clones from DayStar and the like), the G4 (with Apple's "Two Brains are Better Than One" campaign) and Mac OS X were built with multiple processors in mind, and the rest is history.
With the legacy the Mac clones left behind with Steve Jobs' return during the early years of the PowerPC era, it always leaves me wondering what if Apple had been more patient with IBM to manufacture low power/low heat multicore G5 processors that could have been used in a PowerBook G5? Instead, Intel delivered what IBM couldn't, and every new Mac today has more than one core running to help fulfill our ever-increasing demand for digitally driven data, entertainment, and productivity.
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