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2012 could be the year of the Apple clones

This post appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on December 19, 2011

by Larry Magid

Could 2012 be the year of the Apple clones? It seems likely based on what I expect to be announced at next month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I’m not talking about exact duplicates. Apple doesn’t license its operating systems, so unlike what happened to IBM in 1982, we’re not going to see products that run off-the-shelf Mac or iPad software. It was at that year’s now-defunct Comdex computer show where Compaq introduced its fully IBM-compatible PC that launched the multibillion-dollar industry that eventually lead to Dell, Hewlett-Packard), Sony and hundreds of other companies producing computers that were 100 percent compatible with the platform IBM built when it introduced its first PC only a year earlier. Eventually, IBM pulled out of the PC business.

Those companies were able to clone the IBM PC because IBM made the mistake of allowing its partner, Microsoft, to license a virtually identical version of its PC-DOS operating system to any takers. Microsoft developed DOS for IBM, which shipped it with the new PC in August 1981. Shortly after the IBM PC shipped, Microsoft started negotiating deals for the nearly identical and slightly renamed MS-DOS, which enabled other companies’ machines to run the same software and use the same peripherals as IBM’s PCs.


Apple did license its Mac operating system for a short time after Steve Jobs was fired, but Jobs ended those deals shortly after returning to Apple. There was never even a hint of a licensing deal for the iPod, iPhone or iPad so — at this juncture — there is no such thing as a Mac or iOS clone.

Or is there?

Well, it depends on how you define clone. While there are no other machines on the market that legally run iOS apps or native Mac programs, there are plenty of phones and tablets that were clearly inspired by Apple.

I’m not suggesting that Apple should win its many pending lawsuits against the makers of Android phones and tablets, but at least some judges have found credibility in Apple’s claims that the devices violate its patents. I don’t know much about patent laws and I love that Apple has competition from Android makers. But it’s hard not to notice that the look and feel of many Android devices are similar to those running iOS.

I own several iOS and Android devices and use them almost as interchangeably as when I switch between a Chevy and a Toyota. There are clear differences between the two operating systems but as far as general look is concerned, there are lot of similarities.

So we’ll see plenty of Android phones and tablets next year, including some that are much cheaper than Apple’s products. We’ll also see devices with a physical look and feel inspired by Apple’s popular MacBook Air notebook PC.

As I’ve written, I bought a 2.4 pound, 11-inch MacBook Air to replace the slightly heavier and larger Lenovo ThinkPad X300 I used to carry around. The Air is not only lighter and thinner, but is elegantly designed. There are some people who buy Macs because they prefer OS X to Windows, but I have no preference when it comes to operating systems. Despite Windows’ mixed reputation, I find Windows 7 to be fast, reliable and as easy to use as OS X. What I love about the MacBook Air is the design of the hardware.

No reputable company is going to try to clone the Mac’s OS X operating system, but we’re likely to see plenty of Windows machines that look a lot like the Air. Asus has already taken the wraps off a couple of models that have a similar size and weight, as well as that cool tapered look where the front of the machine is thinner than the back.

Other machines in this emerging “Ultrabook” category include the Lenovo IdeaPad U300s and the Toshiba Portege Z830. Comparable to the 13-inch MacBook Air, both weigh less than 3 pounds. These machines tend to start at just shy of $1,000 but unlike Macs, you’re more likely to see them at a discount. At next year’s CES, I expect to see plenty of new Ultrabooks, including some at lower prices. If Ultrabooks catch on, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some for under $500 by CES 2013.

The other thing we’ll see demonstrated at CES next year are notebooks and tablets running Microsoft’s as-yet-unreleased Windows 8, which is Microsoft’s answer to iOS and OS X wrapped up into a single operating system. They won’t be for sale until next fall, but some vendors plan to show them at their booths. Unlike Apple’s current strategy, Microsoft will have a single operating system for both tablets and PCs that’s optimized for touch screens and tablet-specific apps but also able to run traditional Windows programs. Users will launch apps by touching on-screen “tiles,” as is now the case with Microsoft’s Windows Phone operating system.

When I walk around CES in January, my shoulder bag will be about six ounces lighter than last year thanks to my MacBook. Maybe the following January, I’ll be carrying an even lighter Windows machine.


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