The Appeal (and Ethics) of Hackintoshing: Should Apple License the Mac OS?

Writing on Fast Company, Farhad Manjoo says that not long ago, he got his hands on “one of the slowest, ugliest, and least-user-friendly Macintosh laptops the world has ever seen” — and he loves it, since it sports a couple of features that others can’t match. It’s tinier and lighter than Apple’s pricey MacBook Air, and even better, having cost him only about $500, a third of Apple’s tariff for the most inexpensive Air.

This laptop is of course a “Hackintosh” — specifically a 9-inch Dell netbook Farhad has hacked to run Apple’s Mac OS X. He notes that since Apple adapted its elegant OS to run on Intel’s processors, hackers have been diligently breaking down the walls between Macs and PCs.
My daughter, a lifelong Mac fanatic, is one of them, having been happily running OS X — currently Leopard — on a 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 desktop box for the past three years and finding it more than satisfactory. I’ve tried out this machine, and it’s impressively fast. However, my daughter is an accomplished computer tech who’s been able to deal with the necessary tweaking and technical tedium of getting OS X up and running reliably on her bargain basement Dell.

Not for the Faint of Heart

Farhad Manjoo notes that, no surprise, Apple doesn’t look kindly on the Hackintosh movement, but this evidently hasn’t slowed the movement’s momentum, and Mac hackers, some on constrained budgets like my daughter, have discovered that they can build precisely the features and products they want into a custom desktop or laptop model of a type and price point Apple doesn’t choose to offer and save a boatload of money in the process.

“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 observed last October. That may be all well and good, but there are an awful lot of folks out there these days who want a $500 computer, or indeed in today’s snakebit economy simply can’t afford a higher price of entry, or who really want a netbook-sized laptop, which is one of the market categories Apple has chosen not to serve, at least yet. And its an exaggeration to insist that all sub-$500 computers are necessarily “junk.” Legions of satisfied netbook users contend otherwise.

Manjoo warns, and my daughter’s experience underscores this, that Mac hacking is not for dilettantes or the faint-hearted, and there are plenty of potential technical hurdles and pitfalls to be overcome, but there is support available from the fraternity (and in some instances sorority) of experts populating online forums who’ve probably encountered — and solved — the problems that may be your current stumbling-blocks.

But is it Ethical

There is of course the ethics question. Installing OS X on a non-Apple computer is a direct violation of Apple’s End User Licensing Agreement. My daughter has been encouraging me to get a PC laptop and let her install OS X on it for me, but while I profoundly disagree with the thrust, extent, and spirit of current copyright regulations, especially the execrable and draconian DCMA, it’s still the law, which I personally prefer to stay on the right side of, although I don’t pass any judgment on those who are exercising civil disobedience against what they (and I) consider unjustly excessive intellectual property end user restrictions.

I also understand and appreciate that if Apple were to have a change of heart and authorize the Mac OS for installation on non-Apple PC hardware, it could very well spell the end of Apple-branded computers. This very nearly happened in the mid-’90s with previous Apple CEO Gil Amelio’s near catastrophic experiment with Mac OS licensing to third-party clonemakers. The latter made some very attractive machines. I still have a UMAX SuperMac S-900 that was a formidable piece of work in the context of the era, in many ways outdoing the Apple PowerMac 9500 and 9600 that competed against it at higher prices.

So this is definitely one of those matters where the “be careful what you wish for” axiom applies. It would be neat to be able to buy a Dell or Asus laptop, some models of which I personally find quite enticing — and not just because of prices. However, I would hate for the ability of Apple to keep rolling out sublimely elegant and delightful machinery like my unibody MacBook to be compromised because of a bleeding away of Mac OS users and profitability to cheaper PC boxes.

How about you? Do you think Apple should license Mac OS X? How about the ethics of hackintoshing?

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