Jack Kim, a 21 year-old Stanford student, is about to do something that will likely earn him the wrath of the biggest company on the planet. He’s planning to sell refurbished HP laptops that have been pre-configured to let them run Apple’s OS X software (being renamed to MacOS this year), at a price that he claims will be one third of the cost of buying a similarly-equipped machine from Apple. He calls his machine a HacBook Elite, so-named because any non-Apple machine that runs OS X is known as a “Hackintosh.”
Kim’s venture is the result of his own frustrations at not being able to develop for iOS on anything but a Mac. “I made an Android app and I was trying to port it over to iOS,” Kim told Digital Trends, “and I realized there’s just no way to develop iOS apps when you’re running a PC.”
Once configured, the HacBook Elite should deliver about the same performance as a 2013 Macbook Pro.
To develop iOS apps, you need to run Xcode, Apple’s proprietary development environment. “I tried googling. ‘how do you run Xcode on a PC,’” Kim said, “and the answer was: You can’t.” Kim doesn’t have a philosophical issue with using Macs, in fact, he currently owns one. But when started out several years ago, he couldn’t afford one. “I looked for used Macbooks and Mac Minis,” he claimed, “and they all cost way too much money. This led me, unwillingly, into the Hackintosh world.”
That world, as many have discovered, ain’t so easy, especially for those who aren’t super tech-savvy. “If you don’t know how to modify computers, it’s very, very hard,” Kim said. His journey was made even more difficult because Kim wanted a laptop Hackintosh, not a desktop, which is a less popular choice among the Hackintosh community, because of the trickier customization. After some trial and error and with a lot of help from his roommate, Kim made his first Hackintosh — a modified HP EliteBook — and decided he wanted to pave the way for other developers to have a low-cost option to buying Apple computers.
“Turns out there’s a lot of support for this machine,” he said, referring to the HP laptop he used, which are available for as little as $125. His plan is to do all the heavy lifting, including installing a Wi-Fi chip that plays nicely with OS X, and then include a step-by-step set of instructions to complete the metamorphosis from PC to Mac: “It should only take about 15 minutes,” Kim explained. Once configured, the HacBook Elite should deliver about the same performance as a 2013 Macbook Pro. “It also kinda looks like a Mac, which I thought was funny,” he added with a laugh.
Legal trouble ahead
But the laugh might soon be on Kim if he proceeds with his plans to sell these machines to consumers, even if he ships them without Apple’s software. Benjamin Bloom is a Toronto-based copyright and IP attorney, with the law firm Minden Gross, and he thinks that Kim could easily find himself in Apple’s legal crosshairs. “In this case, if he says that he’s just a manufacturer,” Bloom told us, “assembling a bunch of components in specific way, that just happens to allow Apple’s OS to run on it … it’s a certainly a grey area.”
And yet, for other groups that have used the same line of reasoning, it hasn’t been a grey area at all. You only need to look as far as The Pirate Bay, or at other companies that lean on the excuse of not being “directly engaged” in piracy or violating licensing agreements, and you will see where this could head. It has been difficult to convince courts to exonerate companies that dance around IP and copyright issues from wrong-doing. Kim’s HacBooks could face similar problems because, as Bloom points out, the machines are essentially useless to a consumer until they install Apple’s software (Kim plans to ship the laptops without an OS installed). “In terms of legal responsibility,” Kim says, referring to his customers, “it’s definitely on the developer.”
Hackintoshes are hardly a new idea. Ever since Apple created the first version of its operating system that could run on Intel’s x86 architecture, hackers have been forcing the software to play nicely with non-Apple machines through various means. One of the most prominent online communities dedicated to this effort is filled with guides on how to install OS X on PCs — including specialized software that takes a standard OS X install package and makes it bootable on a non-Apple computer. You would think that the person who runs Tonymacx86 would be very supportive of the HacBook Elite, but when Digital Trends contacted this person (who has decided to remain anonymous) they treated the topic like Kryptonite. “I will not be supporting or endorsing any project that attempts to sell Hackintoshes,” they told us, “This is illegal and will be prosecuted by Apple — see Apple vs. Psystar.”
Psystar, for those who may not have been following Apple new back in 2009, was a short-lived attempt to sell non-Apple hardware with OS X installed. Apple successfully sued them for their efforts and the Psystar later declared bankruptcy. When we attempted to clarify to Tonymacx86 that Kim wasn’t planning to ship his machines with OS X, they reiterated, saying, “I stand by my previous statement.” Ominously, adding, “If I were you I’d stay far away.” Bloom thinks that might be good advice: “Just from a resources perspective,” he pointed out, “[Apple] is a company that has the resources to fight and hold off the U.S. government, over a single iPhone.” He thinks it’s highly unlikely that Apple wouldn’t examine its options once it becomes aware of Kim’s project.
Willing to take the risk
Kim knows he might be courting Apple’s displeasure: “Apple probably won’t be happy,” he said, “like, at all.”
We reached out to Apple for comment via email, to see just how unhappy the HacBook Elite might make them, but not surprisingly its PR rep simply wrote, “No comment.”
Kim isn’t looking to get into any legal hot water. He wants to get OS X machines into the hands of people who can’t afford Apple’s hardware.
Kim isn’t looking to get into any legal hot water. He wants to get OS X machines into the hands of people who can’t afford Apple’s hardware, even if it means only breaking even. Initially, he plans to sell his HacBooks for $329, which certainly represents a good savings over buying a new, base-model 11-inch Macbook Air ($899) which is Apple’s least expensive laptop, but this isn’t a fair comparison. When we pointed out that Kim’s HP machines are already well-loved and several years old, and that used Macbook Airs can be picked up on Kijiji and Craigslist for as little as $350 depending on their age and condition, he acknowledged he might have to drop the price.
As to why someone would want to go to the trouble of creating a Hackintosh — even one as easy to configure as the HacBook — Kim says it’s all about the customization. “It’s more expandable,” he notes, than a model from Apple, letting users augment or swap out batteries, memory, hard drives, etc., something which isn’t always easy on an Apple laptop. “Also,” he says with a grin, “making a Hackintosh is kinda cool.”
If creating your own Hackintosh sounds cool to you too, you can head on over to hacbook.com, and get on Kim’s waiting list. He says pre-order requests are now more than 500, thanks in no small part to the project’s inclusion on Product Hunt. “I’ll start fulfilling orders as soon as possible,” he told us, “the first kits will probably start shipping in 2-3 weeks.”
If more folks sign up, that’s fine too. “If there’s a demand,” he said confidently, “I can get the supply.”
It goes without saying that giving your money to a complete stranger in order to buy a used laptop that has been modified by hand, and configured to run software which by definition violates Apple’s EULA, should be approached with a great deal of caution. There will be no warranty on Kim’s Hackintoshes, and while he is willing to offer some support, he intends to provide that help via an online community which, like the HacBooks, has yet to be built.
Of course, this could all become academic really fast if Apple steps in. “I definitely don’t want to get involved in a lot of legal trouble,” Kim said. “As soon as it has legal issues, I’m just gonna get the fuck out.”
Caveat Emptor, my friends. Buyer beware.