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Clones from the Woodwork

The termites in the wainscotting of the Macintosh market are on the march again. The original and most persistent termite is David Small, wizard at large, and producer of a line of increasingly sophisticated Macintosh emulators for the Atari ST line. Then came the AMAX, the Macintosh emulator for the Amiga that prompted Usenet flame comparisons between the A3000 with AMAX and the IIfx. ARDI was the next termite (maybe I should allude to the marching ants of a selection marquee instead) with a Unix library that simulates Macintosh ROMs. ARDI designed its product, ROMlib, to be burned into ROMs and then used in Macintosh clones, and although it was announced in September, little has surfaced from ARDI since.

That was it for a while. Then in November, up popped RDI and its Brite Lite SPARC-based laptop, which included PC and Mac compatibility, though we never heard how RDI achieved Mac compatibility. Two weeks later came the first relatively real clone, the Cork System 30, which features IIci performance and a bunch of extras, such as a DSP chip. In time for the Christmas press release deadline was Hydra Systems, which announced that it had created a PC board that runs Macintosh software. Like the Cork computer, the AMAX, and David Small's Spectre GCR (and of course the Outbound laptop), the Hydra requires that you use 128K ROMs from old Macs (though Hydra plans to release its own Mac-compatible ROMs later on in the year). Since Apple has some control over these ROMs, it's unclear how common such emulators will be, although Cork claims that plenty of Mac 512KE's and Pluses are out there waiting to be turned into IIci's (much as the ugly duckling wanted to be a swan).

Just this week came perhaps the most determined termite of all. NuTek Computers announced that it has completely reverse engineered the Macintosh ROMs (no indication which ones) in a clean-room environment. NuTek aims to ship a three-chip set late in 1991 that will allow third parties to manufacture Macintosh clones six months later. NuTek's clones require the 68020 or 68030, which will remove them from the bottom of the market. NuTek has based its interface on Motif, from OSF, which will prevent interface trouble with Apple's legal department, though a lawsuit is likely nonetheless. Like ARDI, NuTek's emulated chipset will not require use of Apple's system software. In addition, Hydra has licensed the Xerox Star interface (you remember the Star, the machine which Star-ted all this graphical nonsense) in deference to Xerox and more practically, as a defence against Apple Legal.

In some ways, I'm not interested in buying a Macintosh clone. I once owned a Franklin ACE 1000 Apple II clone, and while it worked well, it never ran ProDos or AppleWorks, which would have been nice. Clones will never be 100% compatible because Apple reserves the right to change things whenever it pleases. Even in the PC world, you can never guarantee that every PC clone will run every piece of PC software and work with every piece of PC hardware. Complete compatibility is a myth. Even Apple's new machines take a while before most everything works correctly (I'm still impressed that programs from 1984 like FEdit and Missile Command work on every Mac I've tried them on).

More interesting will be Apple's reaction. There's been talk of licensing ROMs recently in certain circles (and no, I can't tell you which ones), and in my opinion Apple should go ahead and do it. While complete compatibility is a myth, Apple stands a much better chance of achieving it than a company that reverse-engineered the ROMs. And besides, if Apple doesn't do something about these termites, they'll munch right into profits.

Abacus Research and Development, Inc. -- 505/766-9115
Hydra Systems -- 408/996-3880
Cork Computer Corp. -- 512/343-1301
NuTek Computers -- 408/973-8857
Related articles:
MacWEEK -- 29-Jan-91, Vol. 5, #4, pg. 1
MacWEEK -- 08-Jan-91, Vol. 5, #1, pg. 173
MacWEEK -- 18-Dec-90, Vol. 4, #42, pg. 1
InfoWorld -- 28-Jan-91, Vol. 13, #4, pg. 1, 93
InfoWorld -- 14-Jan-91, Vol. 13, #2, pg. 8
PC WEEK -- 28-Jan-91, Vol. 8, #4, pg. 5