Worms in the Apple

Two rebels take on America's most beloved computer company.

A pickup truck suddenly flashed into his peripheral vision. Rudy had time only to register that it was barreling across five lanes of traffic toward his passenger-side door. Before he could move the steering wheel, the impact smacked his car off course and sent it careening toward a guardrail.

He glimpsed the 50-foot drop from the overpass and imagined slamming through the fence and plummeting to the ground. He wasn't wearing a seat belt. Just before contact, he braced his arms against the steering wheel and screamed.

The front of the car crumpled like a Styrofoam cup. An airbag exploded into Rudy's face and scalded his arms. His car skidded. Miraculously, it didn't flip. The guardrail held. He survived.

Robert Pedraza (left) and his brother, Rudy, sell PCs running Apple’s operating system at half the cost of similar Macs.
© 2008, The Miami Herald
Robert Pedraza (left) and his brother, Rudy, sell PCs running Apple’s operating system at half the cost of similar Macs.
Copycats around the world, including Rashantha De Silva’s Quo Computer in Los Angeles, are selling Mac clones and betting that Psystar will prevail in court.
Ted Soqui
Copycats around the world, including Rashantha De Silva’s Quo Computer in Los Angeles, are selling Mac clones and betting that Psystar will prevail in court.

"I still don't know how, honestly," Rudy says. "Adrenaline, I guess. But I can say without a doubt that crash was the moment when Psystar was truly born."

For the previous few months, while the brothers did consulting work for a company that sold storage units, Robert had spent hours of free time at the cluttered table in Rudy's garage. His pet project was Mac's OS X operating system.

The system, whose first version debuted in 1999, is widely considered one of the most user-friendly ever invented. Though the software sold for $100 or less, it was programmed to run only on Mac computers — and the cheapest fully equipped models usually sold for around $1,000, almost three times the price of the cheapest PCs on the market. (Windows, by contrast, can run on nearly every kind of computer, including Macs.)

"Like a lot of people, I'd always loved Apple's interface," Robert says. "But there's no way we could afford that stuff growing up, so we always felt sort of excluded from the company."

Robert set about learning how Apple's OS operated and then figured out how to trick it into running on a cheaper PC. He was hardly the first to do so. For nearly five years in the mid-'90s, Apple actually licensed a host of companies to make authorized clones. Today, there's an entire online culture — the "Hackintosh" community — devoted to decoding Mac programs for other systems and sharing their secrets.

In fact, members of one such group, the "osx86project," have since claimed the Pedrazas used their work to hack into Apple's hardware.

Rudy scoffs at the idea he borrowed from the Hackintosh scene. "The first thing you have to do is unlearn everything you've read online about how to make this work," he says, "because it's all wrong."

Robert says he found his own way around Apple's built-in security devices. The breakthrough meant that, among other things, the cheap machines were virtually immune to viruses and hackers.

But not until Rudy's near-death experience did the brothers decide to do anything with the pet project. "It's a common misconception that we set out to challenge Apple," Rudy says. "I kind of wish we had, because we probably could have approached this from a much more logical starting point. But that's not how it happened."

Instead, Rudy remembers telling his brother inside Psystar's garage-turned-office a few months after his accident: "Look, we're going to sell this thing online."

"I was much more reluctant to do it," Robert says. "I guess I'm just more conservative than Rudy. I wasn't worried about Apple, really — I just didn't think it was ready to sell."

But Rudy was tired of waiting. "I almost died!" he says. "And that was not even from a risk I had taken; it just happened. I realized you can't wait for tomorrow. You just have to go."

In April 2008, the company went online. Almost immediately, everyone — Apple bloggers at sites such as MacRumors, tech writers at newspapers as far-flung as the Guardian in London and the New Zealand Herald — wanted to know about this mysterious South Florida company that dared to offer Macs at PC prices.

At first, the reaction was split neatly into three camps: those applauding the idea, those vehemently opposed, and those convinced the entire thing was a fraud. "Please, God, let this work out," wrote one of the first posters at MacRumors. "This is almost insulting," another wrote.

The backlash began in earnest a few days later. "Psystar Exposed: Looks Like a Hoax," trumpeted Gizmodo, a cheeky blog owned by Gawker. "Who are they and why are they so shady?" the site demanded. By the end of the week, the site's writers confidently proclaimed that "these guys are obviously clowns."

Gizmodo then posted photos of Rudy's house. "Ass hat scammers," one commenter scoffed.

"Having some dude walking around your house is scary," Rudy says.

It didn't help that Rudy had changed Psystar's official address three times in the company's first week, shifting it from his home to the current headquarters in an industrial park. Or that Psystar had to suspend sales for a few days while it switched credit-card processors — the brothers weren't equipped to handle the hundreds of orders pouring in.

"We were just not prepared for this kind of reaction," Rudy says. "And the violence of the backlash was just shocking to us."

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