Apple’s Atomic War


With the release of 10.6.2, Apple (s aapl) killed unsupported support for the Atom processor — the processor used in low-cost netbooks. Certain models of netbooks could run OS X quite easily, and people used them to make the Little Netbook Apple Refuses to Make. While it’s a stretch to say Apple has killed the hackintosh market, it’s certainly proving it isn’t going to sit around and ignore it.

The reaction has been interesting and varies from casual indifference, to the defense of Apple’s action, to thinking Apple cancelled Christmas. While I’ve been a vocal supporter of Apple’s right to continue to club Palm (s palm) over the Pre syncing fiasco, I imagine it’ll sound hypocritical when I say I’m disappointed in Apple over this move.

Up until now, Apple’s stance with the hackintosh community has largely been don’t ask, don’t tell. The people who bought a netbook and, hopefully, bought a copy of OS X to install it, were aware of the risks of doing so. Getting it to run might involve waving a dead chicken at the screen, or it could be completely painless. However, the person undertaking this task knew of the risks. So, there was little harm done.

I’d like to take a look at some of the armchair theories I’ve seen, and offer my own armchair analysis of them.

Apple wasn’t happy with the (alleged) piracy

The piracy angle has two fronts: your interpretation of the EULA, and how many copies of OS X running on hackintoshes were purchased.

In terms of the EULA, while I know Apple strongly disagrees with this, my personal take is as long as I’ve bought a legal license of OS X (and if it’s an upgrade license like Snow Leopard, I have the requisite Leopard copy), if I want to install it on a piece of non-Apple gear as long as I don’t waste Apple’s or mine time with supporting it, I’m in the clear. Now, this is not legal advice in any way, and all the usual disclaimers. It may be a tenuous stretch, but in this case I don’t consider a person creating such a hackintosh a “pirate.”

The second front, though, has no defense. If you’re creating a hackintosh and download a torrent or borrow a buddy’s disc, and don’t own a corresponding license, you’re a pirate. Where things get gray is if you’re downloading a hacked OS X distro, but have a legal license, are you a pirate? I have no data on how many hackintoshes were running pirated OS X installs, and I don’t have any corresponding data on how many Snow Leopard installs are legal. That said, since Apple offers no copy protection, I’m going to say that piracy wasn’t a motivator.

Apple didn’t like seeing netbooks with Apple stickers on them

In the somewhat wonky world of Apple’s Land of Preventing User Confusion, I can actually see this one being a reason for doing this. Now, I go to a fairly technical university and the overall number of netbooks I’ve seen is small, and zero of them have been running OS X (unscientific poll taken while trying to find tables at the canteen and library). I’ve never actually seen a hackbook, much less one with an Apple sticker slapped on it. But there are enough pictures on Flickr of people doing this, so I can see Apple getting irate and going, “OK, enough already.” Who knows, maybe people were walking into Apple stores looking for “that cute little Apple laptop I saw the nice guy at the airport using.”

Apple doesn’t have products running the Atom chipset

I’ll buy this one. While having support for the chipset doesn’t hurt anything, it’s unnecessary code. Maybe Apple was thinking of using the chipset and decided against it. Maybe knowing support for that chipset was keeping Jobs up at night. If Apple does end up using the chipset, it’s easy enough to re-enable the code in the future. Which is about as close as I’ll get to mentioning the oft-rumored, never-promised Tablaslabawhatevah. Some have opined that by doing this code cleanup Apple didn’t know it was breaking Atom support. I don’t agree. While it’s possible there’s nothing evil about its intent, I think it was intentional.

The Psystar lawsuit forced its hands

Now we’re getting somewhere. Up until recently, creating a hackintosh was very much a do-it-yourself affair. You had to get the hardware and do the grunt work to get the OS on it. Granted, while it’s gotten a lot easier over the years and many sites have complete walkthroughs, it’s still an undertaking. Psystar, though, upped the ante. It recently released the Rebel EFI tool which, allegedly, will allow you to install OS X on darn near anything. It’s not a stretch to assume it’s going to sell a netbook running OS X. Given the lawsuit, I believe Apple did this to both be able to demonstrate to a court it has taken measures to prevent OS X from running on un-supported hardware, as well as eliminate a future product line from Psystar.

Like I said, I’m a little disappointed in Apple. But I can understand why it would cut the code for an unused chip. I’ve given some thought to getting a netbook and hackintoshing it, but after I got my new MacBook Pro a month or so ago, that desire faded away. I’m much happier using Apple-built hardware. I have a Dell Ultraportable laptop for work, and the small trackpad on that drives me nuts…I don’t want to think of one smaller.

What about you? What do you think of Apple’s decision?