Psystar halts sales of Mac cloning tool, will peddle Linux PCs

Mac clone maker defends Rebel EFI, likens it to 'reading a book in the bathroom'

Mac clone maker Psystar last week indefinitely suspended sales of its only product, a $50 utility that lets customers install Apple's Snow Leopard operating system on generic Intel-based computers.

The company also said it would resume selling systems "in the coming days." Those machines will run Linux rather than Mac OS X.

Psystar, which began selling Mac clones in April 2008, has been battling Apple in federal court in California since July 2008, when Apple sued the Doral, Fla. firm, saying it violated copyright laws by preinstalling the Mac operating system on its machines.

Sales of Rebel EFI, which Psystar launched in October, have been "voluntarily suspended" while the company seeks clarification from the courts about whether the software is legal, Psystar said in a Dec. 22 statement. "Psystar feels it would be prudent to halt the sale of Rebel EFI while we explicitly ask the court for clarification on the legality of Rebel EFI."

Rebel EFI has been Psystar's only product since early December, when the company halted sales of all hardware, including the Intel-based clones pre-loaded with Snow Leopard, and agreed to pay Apple approximately $2.7 million if it loses planned appeals of a ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup.

On Dec. 15, Alsup issued an injunction that banned Psystar from selling Mac OS X-equipped computers, giving the small business until midnight Dec. 31 to comply. Although the injunction did not expressly include Rebel EFI, Alsup warned Psystar that at some point it could be held in contempt if it sold the software.

"Whether Rebel EFI violates the terms of the injunction set forth in this order is a factual issue more appropriate for a contempt action," Alsup said in his order two weeks ago. "[But] this order declines to 'bless' a product about which it knows little of substance ... and Psystar -- if it continues to do so -- sells Rebel EFI at its peril."

Previously, Psystar argued that Rebel EFI should not be liable to any injunction ordered by Alsup, and in a second lawsuit, has asked a south Florida federal court to rule on the software's legality.

Although Psystar took Alsup's warning seriously enough to pull Rebel EFI, it continued to trumpet its right to sell the utility. "We respectfully disagree with courts [sic] notion that we are 'hardcore copyright infringers,'" said Psystar on its Web site. "Psystar has never, and will never, condone software piracy. It's your software, you should be able to use it where you want to."

Apple, however, has argued in the Florida federal court of U.S. District Court Judge William Hoeveler that Rebel EFI is "simply a repackaged version of Psystar's circumvention technology" that has been barred by Alsup. Apple has asked Hoeveler to transfer the Florida lawsuit to Alsup's court.

Not surprisingly, Psystar sees things differently. "If you purchase an off-the-shelf copy of OS X Snow Leopard, its [sic] your right to use that software," said Psystar. "A publisher cannot forbid you from reading a book in the bathroom or listening to a music disc while riding your bicycle. There should be no difference in the software realm, no matter how much money Apple or anyone else throws at it."

Although Rebel EFI has been taken off the market, Psystar said customers who ordered a $15 tee-shirt, or donated $20 or more to the company would receive a free copy when the utility goes back on sale. The tee-shirt's front reads "I sued Psystar" while the reverse reads "...and all I got was a lousy injunction." The company has also asked for donations in $20, $50 and $100 amounts.

Assuming Alsup or Hoeveler give Rebel EFI a stamp of legality, Psystar plans to release multiple versions of the Snow Leopard installation tool, including ones tailored to specific PCs, such as Dell's discontinued Mini 9 netbook and Hewlett-Packard's Mini series of netbooks.

In the meantime, Psystar will soon resume PC sales. Unlike its previous machines, which could be ordered with Windows or Mac OS X, Psystar's new line will only offer Linux.

Clearly, the new computers will be aimed at customers who want to install Snow Leopard rather than actually use Linux. "In addition to using only first quality components, our hardware specifically chosen such that it is known to be compatible with OS X (via Apples [sic] own drivers or open source offerings online)," said Psystar. "This makes it easier to get up and running with your favorite XNU based operating system, including Pure Darwin."

XNU is the operating system kernel that Apple acquired from NeXT, a computer company owned by CEO Steve Jobs between his stints with Apple. Apple used the XNU kernel in Mac OS X.

Last week's statement was the clearest indication yet that Psystar, which once told potential investors it could sell as many as 12 million machines in 2011, will rely on Rebel EFI to drive any future business. By selling Linux PCs and Rebel EFI to customers, Psystar would shift responsibility for installing Mac OS X to its users.

Psystar has yet to file motions in either the California or Florida federal courts asking for clarification of Rebel EFI's legal status.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter @gkeizer, send e-mail at or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed .

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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