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Pizza Box or IMac? No, an IBox By Leander Kahney

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02:00 AM Apr. 02, 2003 PT

A Minnesota man has plans to launch his own Macintosh-manufacturing business, building a low-cost, upgradeable Mac called the iBox.

John Fraser, a 21-year-old engineer from Chanhassen, Minnesota, is finalizing the design for his flat “pizzabox” Mac and hopes to go into production in three to four months. If successful, Fraser will be the first third party to make a Mac since Apple shut down its three-year experiment in clone licensing in 1997.

Unlike the world of Windows PCs, which has many hardware makers, Apple is the only company making Macs. Apple doesn’t license its operating system to outside hardware manufacturers.

Fraser hopes to sidestep the licensing issues by using older, off-the-shelf parts made by Apple and sold to computer repair outfits as spare parts. He will use Apple-made motherboards preloaded with Macintosh ROMs — the vital piece of hardware-cum-software that makes a Mac a Mac. Customers will supply their own Mac operating system.

However, Fraser may still face legal problems with patents and trademarks, legal experts said. Apple is notoriously protective of its intellectual property, and has not hesitated to go after hardware manufacturers, software publishers and websites for infringement.

Fraser hasn’t yet contacted Apple, and the company didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“I always wanted to build Macs,” said Fraser, who runs a part-time PC customization business, 2khappyware. “But I want to get Apple’s full support. I want to make sure I’m on the up and up. I’m an Apple supporter. It’s not something I want to clash with them about. I want to make sure what I’m doing is legal.”

Fraser’s iBox will be a low-cost, upgradeable machine. It will offer everything Mac customers expect: FireWire and USB ports, Airport connectivity, Gigabit Ethernet and so on — for about a third of the price of comparable Apple machines.

Fraser plans to offer both bare-bones and complete systems.

For $250 to $350, the bare-bones iBox will feature a case, motherboard and power supply. Customers will add their own processor, memory, hard drive and operating system.

Fraser will build full-featured configurations to customers’ specifications. A fully loaded iBox will cost between $650 and $2,000, depending on the speed of the chip, the size of the hard drive and other features. He plans to offer configurations with dual processors, just as Apple does in its current line of PowerMacs.

Fraser will base the iBox on so-called “Gigabit” motherboards built by Apple as spare parts for previous generations of G4 PowerMacs. As well as Gigabit Ethernet, the boards have a daughter-card slot for the CPU, which can accommodate a range of G4 chips, including those yet to be released. The iBox includes open slots for extra memory, two PCI cards and an AGP video card.

Fraser said a clear demand exists for a low-cost Mac that customers can outfit themselves with cheap, off-the-shelf parts or parts taken from older machines.

Now, Apple customers must decide between Apple’s entry-level iMac or eMac, neither of which can be significantly upgraded, or spend more money for a pro-level Power Mac.

Fraser is in the final stages of iBox production. The missing piece is finding a manufacturer for the machine’s distinctive case, which was designed by Mario Micheli, a designer from Milwaukee. Fraser said he is meeting with companies that mold plastic next week to discuss putting it into production.

Fraser has already struck a deal to buy parts from Other World Computing, a Mac parts and peripherals supplier. OWC said it may sell Fraser’s systems through its website.

“I think it has great promise,” said Larry O’Connor, OWC’s founder and CEO. “Mac users like unique and interesting things, and this has definitely got people’s attention. There’s definitely interest in what he’s doing.”

Fraser isn’t new to building PCs. He earned his living with his 2khappyware customization business for a few years before he had a child and sidelined the business to a hobby.

And Fraser said he doesn’t have any grand plans for building the iBox business into the next Dell or Gateway. “I’m not doing it for profit,” he said. “I’m doing it for a hobby.”

The project has already generated considerable buzz on a number of online forums. In fact, it was encouragement from members of the dealmac forums that persuaded Fraser there was demand for the iBox.

But intellectual property lawyer Mark Dickson said Fraser has to be very careful not to infringe Apple’s trademarks, trade dress or patent portfolio.

Dickson, a partner at the Menlo Park, California, office of Arnold White & Durkee, said Apple could challenge Fraser if his machine’s look, name or marketing confuses customers into thinking it’s an Apple product.

Dickson also cautioned Fraser to be careful not to infringe any patents. Even if Fraser uses Apple parts, Dickson said the company may hold patents governing how they are put together. The patents may not even be held by Apple, but by another PC manufacturer, Dickson said.

Dickson said he had no knowledge of Apple’s patent portfolio, but strongly cautioned Fraser to consult an intellectual property lawyer before proceeding.

“I think he would be wise to talk to a patent attorney before he does anything else,” Dickson said.

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