The Greatest Threat to Apple?

Mac clones? Really? I feel like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future.

On Monday, website Gizmodo released video of a working, though unauthorized, Mac OS X clone sold by a Florida company called Psystar. Call it a Mac in PC clothing.

I've been here before. Back in my PR days, a Taiwanese manufacturer called UMAX Computer was a client. Mac clones were part of its business. Until, that is, Steve Jobs returned as CEO of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) and canceled the licenses of those who were selling the OS in their own machines.

The problem, Jobs said at the time, was that the cloners were taking precious hardware revenue from Apple, rather than from PC makers such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) , IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , and Compaq.

Would a similar problem persist today? I think so. Apple's second-quarter results were driven largely by huge gains in hardware revenue. Mac market share, meanwhile, topped 6% in North America for the first time in years.

What's more, the iEmpire just paid $278 million for chip designer P.A. Semi and its PWRficient processor. Whether or not this signals the end of Apple's relationship with Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) -- if, that is, the Feds agree to allow a deal -- it's clear that Jobs is as interested as ever in using hardware to differentiate iProducts from Brand X.

Psystar, if it succeeds at selling $399 Mac clones, could threaten all of that. Or, at the very least, the very profitable and recently refreshed iMac line.

A cheap Mac? Take me away, Psystar, I don't mind. But you better promise me that Apple's profits will be back in time. Steve is watching, after all.

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