Washington Apple Pi

A Community of Apple iPad, iPhone and Mac Users

Clone Wars

By Guy Serle

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

Most of us who have been around Apple computers for the last few years can look back at the chaos of the mid 1990s and hope that those circumstances never return. But there was some good in there with the bad. In the mid 90s, Apple finally decided to allow other manufacturers to build Macintosh compatible computers with the hope that it would build up the user base. With a larger user base, when people had outgrown their low-end Mac clones (I myself had a Umax C600, a 240MHz 603 PPC based machine that I was very fond of), they would purchase a higher end model from Apple.

At least that seemed to be the theory. What actually happened was that the Mac clone makers started to outdo Apple at its own game. Faster, cheaper machines started appearing in the major Mac reseller’s flyers and almost none of them came from Apple. The real innovation was coming from companies like Power Computing, Umax, and even Motorola (and its sub-licensees). They didn’t have to support huge research and development facilities. They didn’t have to use proprietary peripherals. They used inexpensive standard PC hardware and were able to undersell Apple’s line. Even the cases they used were regular PC computer cases. Usually nothing fancy. They got the job done and allowed for upgrades or additions as wanted or needed.

The point I’m trying to make here is that when the clones were around, we as Mac Users were not stuck with whatever Apple designed for us to use. Power Computing, Motorola, and Umax were putting Mac motherboards and power supplies into standard PC cases to keep costs down. Coolness was not even a secondary issue (though Umax’s S900, a 604 processor based full sized tower, was a nice, easy to upgrade design). These machines may not have looked like Macs, but they acted like them. Let’s face it; you buy a Mac (or even a PC) not for the way they look, but for what you can do with them. People who buy computers because of a cool looking case really should have their medications checked because I think it’s time to up the dosage.

We all know what happened next (NeXT?). Steve Jobs returned and put the kibosh on the whole thing. Apple bought Power Computing outright and refused to allow the others a license for the Macintosh OS for their upcoming machines. Most of the Mac clone makers quickly went out of business. Umax is still around, but hasn’t really recovered completely from the clone debacle. Unfortunately, with Apple bleeding cash out the wazoo, there were few alternatives. They could either bring the hardware back home or become a strictly research and software company. As 75 percent or more of Apple’s revenue comes from hardware sales, what choice did they really have? Struck back the Empire did, and won. End of story. But is it? Ah, my young Padowah, really over, nothing ever is, heh heh (with apologies to Frank Oz and Yoda).

Flash forward a few years. Apple is back with cool hardware and software exclusively for us Mac users. There are still people using Mac clones out there, but they are starting to fade into the background as the individual machines fail and fewer components are available to repair or upgrade their machines. Of course if all they use their machines for is surfing the Web or writing letters, they’re just fine. However, if they want to get into Apple’s proclaimed “Digital Lifestyle,” they are most likely SOL (Still Out of Luck). The Macs and clones from that era are cursed with relatively slow bus speeds (50Mhz or less), hard to find memory (some machines from that era max out at 128 megabytes or less), and no Mac OS X support. To all of you who are still using Mac OS 9 and earlier operating systems productively and without apology, I say this. Fight the power! Don’t give in to the man! Add whatever counter-culture slogans you wish here. The future, however, is not in your favor. Don’t shoot the messenger, that’s just the way it is. Apple is going full bore with Mac OS X and that is not going to change.

Apple’s new case designs for the post-beige G3 and G4 processors are very nice. Pretty to look at, simple to open, and easy to add memory, PCI cards, or hard drives. But, what if you want more? What if you want front panel USB or FireWire ports? Unless you have $2-3000 bucks for a new Power Mac G5, it’s not going to happen. If you crave more than two internal hard drives or optical drives you’re generally out of luck. Can’t easily be done with an Apple case.

However if you’re a little handy with tools, you can put your Apple motherboard in a PC ATX case and get all the expansion you’ll probably ever need. Keep a few things in mind: this is not for the faint of heart, and be assured your Apple warranty (if any) will be blown clean out of the water by this. Also take into account that you are dealing with potentially lethal high voltages and if you’re the type that doesn’t pay attention to warning labels, Don’t Do This! There is the possibility of electric shock and this is nothing to kid around about. Lastly, remember that once you start down this road, Apple (like the old Mission Impossible Force) will disavow any knowledge of you and your computer. I won’t go into the “how-to’s” in this article. That’s not really the focus of what I’m trying to convey.

If this interests you in any way, go to http://www.xlr8yourmac.com and poke around in the “Systems” area; all kinds of case modifications with instructions are there for you to browse. There are also real world reviews of various upgrades by the people who actually own the computers the modifications were done to. This is much more reliable information than what you’ll get from a typical Mac Magazine review. Do them a favor and support their sponsors too. This site is a wealth of information for those with older (and not so old) systems.

A Recap

So far we’ve gone over a little Apple history, talked about the clones, and briefly chewed the fat about case modifications. Where the heck am I going with all this? OK, I’ll tell you.

While browsing some of the various Apple/Macintosh rumor sites (as I am prone to do), I came across an article about a man who was in the process of designing a pizza-box shaped case (similar to but larger than the old LC cased Macs) that an Apple Macintosh motherboard could be put in. The man’s name? John Fraser of Core Computers.

His was definitely a bare bones kind of endeavor to keep it as inexpensive as possible. On the other hand, it was supposed to make use of the Gigabit motherboard (used for the 733/867/933 G4 QuickSilver towers), so it was no slouch. Because of the shape of the case, you could only use one PCI slot, so large-scale expansion could only be accomplished through external peripherals. Sound familiar? Kinda like what I was complaining about with Apple cases earlier. The difference is that you would get a G4 based Mac at a bargain (compared to Apple’s prices). As described, you could either get this as a low cost kit (add your own processor/memory/hard drive/optical drive), or fully assembled for a bit more. Either way, it was still cheaper than, say, an Apple eMac. It had front and rear FireWire/USB ports along with the usual ports typically seen on that era’s Macintosh. The name it went by was the iBox. Concept drawings of the iBox can be seen at http://www.2khappyware.com/.

Unfortunately because of circumstances beyond John’s control, the iBox never went much farther than the concept stage. In the process of putting the project together, however, John had found the significant resources necessary to put together as many Mac compatible computers as he probably would have found customers for. He had a source for Gigabit motherboards, power supplies, and processors. All he needed was a case to put them in. With John’s experience in custom building PCs, this was not an insurmountable obstacle.

ATX case in hand, John starting building Mac clones. They had all the expandability of Apple’s cases (admittedly not quite as easily accessible, though) and then some. Want three optical drives? How about four or more hard drives? Front panel USB and FireWire ports? Not a problem. Want to customize your case to fit your unique personality? MicroCenter and CompUSA all have customizing kits and parts for ATX cases and will be happy to satisfy your maniacal needs. Everybody’s happy! Well, almost everyone anyway. Can anyone guess where this is going? Apple came down on John Fraser and without even needing their stable of hungry lawyers, shut him down. Rather than get even more long winded than I usually am, I decided to go right to the one person who had been there at the start with a dream of selling cheap Macs (and making at least a little profit along the way), John Fraser.

Apple Pi: Hi John. Thanks for answering a few questions.

John Fraser: No problem.

AP: How did you get started with computers and how old were you at the time? Not necessarily Macs, but in general.

JF: I was about 4 years old when my parents got an Apple [Macintosh] 512KE (Note: The 512KE was the successor to the original 9 inch monochrome Mac. The biggest difference between them was mostly the amount of memory it came with). I started by playing Early Bird Games and Number Munchers and finally got into Microsoft’s Flight Simulator for the Mac when I was about 6 years old. By the time I was between 6 to 8 years old, I started to spend time modifying programs to include my own text messages using a program very similar to ResEdit (Note: ResEdit was a program that allowed you to modify different parameters of Macintosh programs native to the Mac OS before the release of Mac OS X). My Aunt who was in college got me a copy of Microsoft Basic for the Mac OS and I began programming by looking at the past examples included on the disk. Simple ideas like graphics and screen savers were my specialties.

AP: So your first computer was a Macintosh.

JF: Yes, an Apple [Macintosh] 512KE was my first computer. It didn’t have a hard drive, so the OS and bundled applications were all on 400K and 800K floppy disks. I still have the computer and it still works. I even acquired an original Apple 20MB hard drive for it though it is not currently in use. I didn’t get into X86 PC’s until well into the 1990s.

AP: I know your company previously made PCs. Are you still in that business?

JF: Yes, although I specialize in building custom high end PCs. There is no market left to compete with Dell and the other eMachines-type companies without using the cheapest and slowest computer components. That’s a good idea for short-term profits, but warranty support would catch up to us in the future and cost more than it’s worth.

AP: Where did you get the idea of building Mac based computers using PC cases?

JF: I wanted to build a headless iMac and prove that Apple could do the same close to the $500-600 range. I found a person on eBay that was selling Blue and White G3 motherboards for $100. It kind of started as a proof of concept to see if it was economical. All I needed was a case and it’s pretty widely known that the B & W G3 series uses a similar power supply to a standard PC ATX based computer. From my PC business, I had plenty of cases so I started mounting the first G3 motherboard into a PC tower case.

AP: Had you built any Mac based computers just for yourself prior to engineering the “Core Computer” cases?

JF: I built five or six different computers using the G3 and G4 motherboards. Some I still use and some I will be selling in the future on eBay.

AP: Did you own any of the previous (1996-1998) Mac based clones?

JF: I owned a UMAX C500 and a UMAX S900. (Note: The C500 was a 140-280 MHz 603 processor based desktop and the S900 was a 160-300 MHz 604 based tower.) Both were purchased after the clones had stopped being made and were great low cost machines that allowed for factory upgrades. They also offered the IDE bus and PCI cards that many of the Apple machines were missing until the G3 and above series came out. Their design using lower cost technology kept them as viable machines to upgrade until about 18 months ago.

AP: Let’s talk about the iBox. Can you describe the iBox and what place it fits in the Mac hierarchy?

JF: The iBox was our name for the project before it became an attempt at profits. The iBox’s original concept would be for Apple to design a case similar to ours using the older SDRAM memory and G4 processor technology, but limit the internal upgrades like PCI cards, optical drives, and hard drives. Basically, it would be like an iMac without the limiting built-in screen.

AP: Who would be the target market for this type of machine?

JF: I can think of two off the top of my head. Switchers from the PC side, for example. By placing a superior AGP video card in it but still keeping the cost down, switchers might feel comfortable moving to the Mac platform for the first time. Users who are used to paying $500-800 for a desktop with all the expansion are typically scared to move to a limited monitor and absolutely no internal expansion of the consumer eMac or iMac. The iBox would allow them to choose whatever type of monitor (SVGA, ADC) they wanted and have dual monitor support. No low cost PC does anything like that. Gamers would like the iBox also. By keeping the machine fast but not using large PCI slots, huge hard drives, and other useless to them upgrades, the machine could target gamers. Those kinds of upgrades might be typical for graphic designers, DV video and audio users, but gamers want speed. The iBox allows gamers to get a fast Mac without worthless expansion (to them anyway). Currently, only Apple’s high-end machines come with the high-end video cards and they start in the $2400 and above range. Even an iMac with an ATI 9800 chipset would make a very viable gaming machine but Apple will never make it.

AP: What kind of problems did you encounter in designing a case for the iBox? Which were you able to resolve and which ones turned out to be insurmountable?

JF: I really wanted a fanless case, but the issue of heat from the dual processors or even hot single processors made that impossible. The only issue we hoped to resolve but couldn’t was not engineering, but business related in terms of supplies and parts. We needed to find a large enough supply of parts to make it worthwhile to produce the case, which had terribly high startup costs and was very expensive to create. In excess of $100 per case.

AP: Is the iBox officially dead?

JF: I would hope not, but it’s looking bad. The case design is expensive, we have no long term large supply of boards, and Apple seems unwilling to communicate with us on trying to work together to create a machine based on an old design. I have attempted to talk to Apple without a reply for over two months.

AP: I’ve seen the cases you were going to make Core Computer Mac Compatibles from. What were you going to call them and were there different types?

JF: The CoreBox was the original iBox design adjusted for us to be able to build it. It allowed for more expansion than a machine from Apple would want, but its small size was a nice change from Apple’s larger tower designs. A design that hasn’t been seen since the Cube.

AP: From what I’ve read in the various Mac-related forums, the people who have received Core Computer Mac compatibles are very happy with them. What did the customer get, how much was it, and what did the customer need to supply to finish the job?

JF: The beautiful part of our product was that the customer got to choose anything and everything. For $379 the customers received an Apple power supply, motherboard, and a case with all these objects inside. Like a home built PC, they needed to purchase or borrow from older computers a processor, memory, video card, hard drive, and optical drive. This was the most popular option as many customers already had older beige G3s that they could pull memory, CD, hard drive, and video cards from, and put them into a newer computer. For $699-1199, it included a processor from GigaDesigns (single) or PowerLogix (dual). We even sold complete systems with 80 GB hard drives, 52X CD-RW, and even a few custom builds that included a dual 2X DVD-R, 2 GB of memory, and other high end features that would have cost them double on an Apple system.

AP: Can you give us a brief history of Core Computers?

JF: Core started as the concept of the iBox. Just to prove that Apple could build such a system. When Wired magazine got wind of the idea and ran their story (note: search the Wired website for the original story), we began getting 3000-5000 emails a day! I knew at this point that my idea and my good friend Mario McCheli’s iBox design was a sure win business. We used the initial press and future press as advertising, and started to build and prove that it could be profitable. After 2-3 months of crazy 18-hour days without relief, we were able to build an inventory of all of our parts.

Unfortunately, just as we thought we were set to support our customers for a long time, our power supply supplier told us the day after our power supplies were to arrive that they couldn’t sell to us anymore because of a legal contract they have with Apple. This left us with more than $10,000 in inventory of cases, motherboards, processors, video cards and more, but no power supplies to give the customers their orders. After explaining the details to our customers, their response was understandable but unfortunate for us. Massive refund scares locked in our only finances, and the rest was in inventory. After this complete business breakdown, SPAM and other things filled our mailboxes. This scared us and left many customers with unanswered support questions, unanswered emails, and full answering machines.

This also caused a personal financial breakdown. After regaining my feet with the help of my wife and family, I got to work on repairing lost communications with past customers. We are now in the process of clearing our inventory on eBay to gain money to offer refunds or ship what we can to past customers. I’m happy to say that most of our past customers have been very understanding and have been very communicative. It makes the process much easier for everyone.

AP: Have you managed to complete all the orders from your customers who were willing to wait?

JF: We are actively working to repay past customers and fill orders as soon as possible. To be honest, not all the issues are resolved and the situation was escalated by certain customers who thought they would get a faster answer if they spammed my voice and e-mail. That month, my e-mail account kept filling up and my cell phone bill was over $1000. As most of my customers would say, we are now keeping in good communication, and with a new source of income selling just the modified cases, all customer issues should be solved quickly.

AP: How did you get the parts you needed to complete the orders?

JF: I found what we thought might be a new supplier that didn’t have a contract with Apple. They also told us they would be able to get a large quantity of boards. As it turned out, they had some parts, but not enough to cover the final orders. They were our last hope of continuing Core Computers as it had been.

AP: Are you going to continue to try and make Mac compatible computers from Apple motherboards and ATX cases? What’s next for you?

JF: We are starting to work out the details of producing cases similar to ours, but not selling motherboards or any Apple parts in them. Apple parts and motherboards are easy to find one or two at a time from local dealers, eBay, and even directly from Apple itself. This will allow us to expand our line beyond the G4. I’ve already had requests for our cases to be compatible with the older Power Mac 7500, 9600, and even iMac motherboards. I am still hoping for a way for Apple to work with us or at least respond to requests to start a conversation.

AP: I’m sure you must be peeved (to put it mildly) at Apple for stopping you from what could have been a very lucrative business. What was your reaction to the news that Apple was going to prevent your supplier (and any others) from selling you motherboards and power supplies?

JF: It was something I really didn’t see coming. I thought people installing the Mac OS on non-branded Apple hardware would be an issue before using 3-year-old motherboards. Instead of protecting their property and their software, I found them sticking it to me and any similar business by trying to protect 3-year-old hardware designs.

AP: What advice would you give to anyone about to attempt to make a Mac compatible computer from PC standardized cases and parts?

JF: Research. 90% of the Core business was research. Can it be profitable? Is it quick and easy to do? Sure, you’ll find someone who wants to spend 40 hours on sticking an iMac into an old wooden record player, but the vast majority are looking for something not only different, but also quick and low cost.

AP: Did you see the submissions in xclr8yourmac.com about people putting Apple motherboards into PC cases and the horror stories about trying to fit Apple’s style of motherboards and plugs?

JF: Yes I did, and I have direct experience with this. I had created a conversion adapter that allowed posting a Gigabit Ethernet board using a standard $14 PC ATX power supply. The time involved in making the adapter and its lack of reliability forced us to purchase a much more expensive Apple power supply.

AP: Speaking of plugs, do you have any plugs or accolades to give out to any of the people who helped get you started?

JF: First and foremost to Mario McCheli. He was the person who took my words and description of the iBox and turned it into a real live picture. It was his design that got people interested and my hardware design that got people hooked. Without Mario, Core would never have been more than a “case mod” on xlr8yourmac.com. Everyone at dealmac and forums.dealmac.com. All the hotline chat community (a select group of dealchatters).

AP: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, John.

JF: My pleasure.