A Silicon Valley start-up is expected to introduce today what it calls the first legal clone of Apple's popular Macintosh computer since the latter first appeared in 1984.
Practically next door to Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, NuTek USACorp. has for four years single-mindedly pursued the technology necessary to capture a chunk of Apple's roughly $5-billion Mac business--and provoke a company renowned for its ferocious policing of its patents.
Now, $10 million later, NuTek says it has produced a new circuit board that will make a computer act like a Macintosh IIvx for about $300 less than the genuine article. NuTek has also developed a machine called the Duet, which for $2,996 purportedly runs both Mac and IBM-compatible software.
If the products are successful, they could drive down Mac prices and expand the already exploding personal computer market. But analysts are skeptical of NuTek's ability to mimic the complex Macintosh technology in a way that is both accurate and legal. And now that Mac prices are falling anyway, they wonder if anyone will want an imitation.
"I think they're cruising for a bruising," said Stephen Howard, technology editor at MacWeek, a trade publication. "What they're trying to do is very difficult to do technically. And the likelihood that they're not going to land in court by the end of the week is, I think, very small."
Apple wouldn't comment on NuTek's product until it comes out, but there is no mistaking the company line on prospective poachers:
"At Apple, we do not believe it is possible to create a clone of a Macintosh without violating our intellectual property rights," spokesman Christopher Escher recites.
Never one to shrink from a lawsuit, Apple is expected to accuse NuTek in court of violating one or more of the 90 Macintosh patents it holds. Flexing its considerable legal muscle has worked for the computer maker before. While a number of U.S. and offshore companies have tried to imitate the Mac, the few that succeeded did so by licensing parts of the technology from Apple.
Outbound Systems Inc. of Boulder, Colo., for example, made a Macintosh-compatible notebook, but it paid Apple to use parts of its read-only memory. The company is no longer in business, and Apple is now a notebook computer powerhouse in its own right.
Says Escher: "We have aggressively defended our patents in the past and we will continue to do so in the future."
NuTek President Benjamin Chou says he is ready. He says the company has meticulously documented its development process and sealed the computer records in a San Francisco vault every week for four years. G. Gervaise Davis III, an intellectual-property attorney, was retained from the outset. And, Chou says, none of the company's 20 employees ever worked at Apple.
"We developed the technology from scratch," says the 39-year-old entrepreneur. "If Apple decides to hassle us just to try to stop us, they will just be giving us a lot of credit."
Chen-Hwa Shin, one of about 60 resellers and dealers NuTek has lined up to match its Mac-like motherboard and system software with a monitor and hard drive to sell as a complete system, is equally confident. "It's very exciting," said Shin, president of Xcellant Corp. in Fremont. "This is the first true, legal Macintosh clone."
After six months of ramp-up time, Shin expects to sell between 2,000 and 8,000 each month to chain stores and other distributors.
But the test of quality may prove even more difficult than that of legality for the would-be Apple competitor. When Compaq Computer built the first IBM clone in 1983, most of the barriers had been eliminated by IBM itself, which disseminated technical information about its system to establish its PC as the standard.
IBM PC clones are now everywhere. But the Macintosh has its own hardware and its own operating system, both of which are jealously guarded and constantly updated. With some software, consumers may find the clone doesn't quite match up.
Moreover, driven by competition from cheaper IBM-compatible machines that are acting more and more like Macs, Apple recently cut prices on several of its Macintosh models, which have typically sold for nearly 15% more than comparable IBM-compatibles. With the lowest-priced Mac now less than $1,000, analysts say it will be tough to make a dent in a market that still represents only about 10% of total personal computer sales.
Still, if the user-friendly Macintosh's growth has been hampered largely by its price, as is widely believed, NuTek may have what it takes to expand the Macintosh share of the PC market--and make a fortune in the process.
"We like Macintosh," says Chou. "We think it's a great system. So we decided to do it ourselves."