Are Hackintosh Users More Passionate About the Mac Than Apple?

The Hackintosh has become a phenomenon in recent years, despite knotty ethical questions, because Apple’s neglected superfans won’t stop thinking different.

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Feb 19 2019, 3:52pm

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

We have strong opinions about our corporate giants, what they should (or shouldn’t) do, or how they should (or shouldn’t) act.

We want them to listen to us, and understand our needs as users and consumers. But too often, they get too big and they have to balance out your interests with their own—as well as everyone else’s.

This, sometimes, creates situations in which some of a company’s biggest fans feel compelled to take its ideas in a different direction. It’s with this in mind that I’d like to discuss why the Hackintosh, a machine (usually with an Intel CPU) that runs MacOS on hardware Apple does not make, is an interesting cultural trend, rather than just a way to cut Apple out of a share of its profits.

The roots of the fateful decision that gave us the Hackintosh date to 2001, when an Apple employee, working remote, spent his time building a version of Mac OS X, the then-new operating system Apple adapted from NeXTStep, that was compatible with Intel’s x86 platform.

This proved a key move, creating a backup plan in case PowerPC got long in the tooth (as it eventually did), and when Apple leadership found out about this remote employee’s solo endeavor, the company immediately did something unexpected: It tried to convince another company to make Mac clones.

At a Hawaii golf course, Steve Jobs met with Sony executives to show them what could technically be called the first “Hackintosh,” a Sony VAIO laptop that was running OS X on an Intel processor.

Jobs, a fan of Sony’s, had famously been opposed to Macintosh clones, shutting down a clone program that had harmed Apple’s bottom line, but was apparently willing to make an exception for Sony, whose VAIO line was well-regarded at the time. But bad timing on Sony’s part killed the deal. The problem? The VAIO line was already successful with Windows, so it didn’t need OS X.

The result was that the world didn’t get an Intel Mac until 2006. But despite Apple’s best early efforts, there was only so much it could do to prevent other PCs from being able to run its iconic operating system.

This would later prove important for some of the operating system’s biggest fans.

“Your karma check for today: There once was a user that whined his existing OS was so blind, he’d do better to pirate an OS that ran great but found his hardware declined. Please don’t steal Mac OS! Really, that’s way uncool. (C) Apple Computer Inc.”

— A passage from a kernel extension, dating to 2006, called “Don’t Steal Mac OS X.kext”. This file, a protected binary that Apple designed, essentially, to serve as a confirmation that the machine was running real hardware, has proven to be fairly weak protection over time, with system hackers getting past its restriction long ago. (You should not remove it from your machine, by the way, even if you’re running a real Mac. It’s the perfect way to stop your Mac from working in one fell swoop.) Despite this, Apple has made little effort to fortify the weak security in the decade-plus since then, with some speculating that it’s partly due to the fact that these users are very often Apple customers who are deeply embedded in the ecosystem—i.e. the very people a company like Apple wouldn’t want to piss off.

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Comedian and entrepreneur Paul Chato, who has been using Macs for a long time. Image: YouTube

Among Hackintosh’s more high-profile users: A comedian with a long history in tech

The Hackintosh community is, admittedly, relatively small—in no small part because of the technical learning curve that often comes with the practice. It’s effectively a subculture borne from the combination of two other subcultures: Apple superfans and hobbyists who build their own computers.

But it does draw in some highly passionate users, many of whom are experts at creative pursuits, in part because of the user base Apple’s machines long fostered. Case in point: Paul Chato.

These days, Chato is an entrepreneur who runs a web design firm, but back in the late ’70s and ’80s, he was best known as a primary member of a popular Canadian comedy troupe named The Frantics, which had a weekly series on CBC Radio that introduced sketches like the legendary “Last Will (Boot to the Head).”

At its peak, the troupe even had its own television show, Four on the Floor, which notably introduced a truly Canadian superhero, Mr. Canoehead.

Though his early success was in sketch comedy, Chato’s career has largely been in technology, including, at one point, as the producer of a popular Myst-style adventure game. More recently, though, Chato has found a degree of success as a YouTuber, operating a vlog that offers up his irreverent take on the mostly tech-related things he’s passionate about.

In an email interview, Chato explained that the mixture of tech and humor came naturally, appearing in Frantics sketches such as “I Sell Computers.”

“The Frantics were probably the first to deal with humour in comic books and nerd life long before The Big Bang Theory popularized it,” Chato said. “So, it’s part of my continuum.”

The Hackintosh-driven coverage, on the other hand, was something of a happy accident, a byproduct of his tech-related pet peeves, many of which are related to the fact that Apple doesn’t make a computer for him.

Two years ago, in one of his earliest clips on the channel, Chato drew attention to the fact that he has used Apple products for more than 30 years—from the original all-in-one to a variety of modern-day MacBook Pros—but moved to producing Hackintosh machines instead. “I feel absolutely abandoned by Apple in terms of meeting my needs,” he stated in the video.

Since then, he’s recorded lots of Hackintosh-related content (along with theories as to what the long-promised Mac Pro reboot should look like), with one particular highlight coming a few months ago, when Chato used his soapbox to discuss the way that Hackintosh brings him joy—in part because of all the problem-solving and tweaking involved.

He noted the process of building a Hackintosh helped get him closer to his son. “Apple kind of ignores the bonding aspects of building a DIY Mac,” he told me.

DIY and Apple don’t particularly go hand-in-hand, but on the other hand, didn’t the company just tell us to “share your gifts”?

Some people who share their gifts can’t do it particularly well with Apple’s current lineup.

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Image: Theis Kofoed Hjorth/Wikimedia Commons

Five different ways that people can run MacOS without owning a Mac

  1. Patching the operating system. In the early days of Hackintoshing, it was common for people in the community to use a literal “hacked” version of Mac OS X that they downloaded from a website, but in recent years, it’s become more common to modify the bootloader (also known as the EFI partition) to make it compatible with MacOS. The most popular tool, Clover, has removed much of the guesswork around installation—though definitely not all of it. But even if you get it to boot, the job often isn’t done, as machines have to essentially be modified to install kernel extensions that effectively serve as drivers or patches to support different pieces of hardware, such as video, sound, or even USB-C ports. By modifying the innards of the system code, Hackintosh users can smooth out the details and make a machine support most of the creature comforts of a Mac. That said, not everything can be easily fixed—a working SD card slot in a laptop is rare, for example, and a microphone might not work through your headphone jack. Probably the most difficult thing for many PC users is the Wi-Fi, as Apple tends to use chips from Broadcom in its machines, rather than Intel, as most PC manufacturers do. This often requires a hardware swap or the use of a third party device, especially on laptops.
  2. The “Vanilla” method. This type of Hackintosh flips the model of the heavy kernel tweaking of the more traditional Hackintosh approach, leaving the operating system itself alone while putting the necessary modifications into the boot process. The benefit of this strategy is that it essentially allows the operating system to work in its purest form without adding a lot of extra kernel extensions, or kext files, within the operating system itself.
  3. Renting someone else’s, virtually. For years, the cloud firm MacStadium has found itself in the unusual situation of building an infrastructure-as-a-service offering around devices that don’t really fit into the server room aesthetic. Compared to a Linux machine from DigitalOcean, it’s not cheap—at $150 a month for an i3 Mac Mini, you’re not acquiring this service by accident. But the company nonetheless has an important niche, underlined by the fact that it has patented its own server infrastructure specifically designed to hold Mac Minis and Mac Pros, and even has taken steps to support the iMac Pro, which has the added complication of including a screen that will be completely useless in the server room.
  4. Leaning soft into virtualization. For those who have a need to use a Mac every once in a while but don’t want to give up their more traditional world of Windows or Linux, it’s possible to use virtualization tools, such as VirtualBox, to run a full Mac install on their machine, much as it’s become popular to run Parallels to bring Windows to the Mac. This approach is technically not allowed by the End User License Agreement unless you’re actually running it on a Mac, but then again, most of this other stuff breaks the EULA, too.
  5. Leaning hard into virtualization. More recently, there has been an increased interest in using low-level hardware virtualization to effectively replace the process of Hackintoshing straight into a bootloader—something that goes beyond a simple test and more into full system replacement. This approach is somewhat easier to set up than the more common Hackintosh route (though still very technical), and also creates less potential risk of blowing up the whole machine. Often, this takes the form of the Linux-based KVM (kernel-based virtual machine), with a hardware virtualization emulator like QEMU managing the system image. There are technical benefits here: While you don’t get the full speed of the underlying machine, you get nearly all of it. Additionally, with the right amount of tweaking, it’s possible to use peripherals that aren’t always fully compatible with modern Macs, such as Nvidia graphics cards. There was one user, an employee of MacStadium, who successfully put together a working installation of MacOS on KVM that could be accessed via a cloud-based AMD EPYC system.
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Image: Charles Wiriawan/Flickr

Why the Hackintosh community may not seem like the most welcoming place

If you’ve ever asked a tech support question on the internet, you probably are aware that support forums are often overloaded, full of people who ask obvious questions about their devices and software.

Now imagine trying to offer tech support to people who are willingly messing with bootloaders and trying to edit obscure system files to make their machine do something it technically isn’t designed to do.

This has led to more aggressive moderation policies on some of the most popular forums in Hackintosh-land. Tonymacx86, for example, is an incredibly useful website for Hackintosh builds, but it’s worth noting that the forum can feel a bit standoffish if you’re new to it, if only because their platform has to deal with a lot of repeated questions. A lot.

A lot of the time, a Tonymacx86 thread takes a certain shape:

A user has fairly technical problem that a layperson could never make heads or tails of but an expert might be able to spot right away.

A moderator tells the user they need to share their reporting files to highlight in detail what the machine is going through. Also, they need to read the FAQ, which is highly detailed, and that they should use the search tool, which goes back many years.

The user responds, either successfully following the rules or begging for mercy. In the latter case, they do not get said mercy generally and are told to go read the FAQ again.

This goes on and on sometimes for days, and reflects both a high level of patience among moderators (seriously, kudos), and a strange power dynamic unlike any I’ve seen on the internet: In a way, the approach almost discourages the community from getting too big.

I asked Chato for his insights on this, and his suggestion, basically, is to RTFM.

“I think the frustration of the ‘experts’ comes from the fact that many questions come from people who have not done any research at all or half-read an install,” he explained. “So, my first bit of advice is to research the crap out of what you need to know, read it all, and then ask your question.“

His second piece of advice deals with motivation: Often, he notes, these sites have a contingent of people trying to simply pirate software who aren’t doing their research, “and they ask stupid questions about [motherboards] and CPUs that are so far off the Hackintosh mark that it’s just plain insulting.”

There’s a chasm of sorts in the Apple community, not unlike the one that existed when jailbreaking was a more popular practice among iPhone owners: Some just wanted to use the tools to improve their experience, because Apple wasn’t giving them something they wanted; others wanted an easy way to get something for free.

“You can tell a real enthusiast because it’s obvious they still own a Mac,” Chato argued. “They aren’t asking for a pirated distro of the MacOS.”

Hackintoshing is an interesting process because, in cases like Chato’s and (admittedly) my own, it highlights a dichotomy between the company and its supporters: It’s a user base, one technical enough to jump through numerous hoops, that loves a company’s product so much that they’re willing to subvert it to get that product in its unvarnished form, because the company’s growth has left them behind.

In 2006, it might have been the case that people Hackintoshing were trying to experiment or get a deal. These days, I think there are a lot more people in this community who simply want Apple to give them what they want so they can do their jobs, and then to get out of the way. These people still want iPhones and iPads, will still buy Apple accessories, and gladly want to be part of the company’s ecosystem. But if they can’t get in the front door, feeling burned by thin keyboards and slow updates, they’ll go in through the back, even if there’s more broken glass on that side of the building.

Think of it like computing’s version of the “Rural Purge”—that infamous situation where the TV networks decided to reboot their programming to meet the needs of advertisers, who wanted young, urban viewers. Even if the networks had moved on to Mary Tyler Moore, People still wanted to watch Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw, so the show’s creators found alternate paths to the airwaves, as well as new ways to make a buck. Callous corporate decision-making can’t kill the interest that easily.

Perhaps like those old Buck Owens and Roy Clark performances, this Hackintosh stuff doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it carries a niche that cares enough about this platform to ignore the proper path and deal with all the minefields that come with it.

In that light, the sometimes brusque nature of the Hackintosh community is understandable, beyond people being sick of newbies. They have an investment to protect.

There’s this phenomenon that has defined the way that the tech community has reacted to things, called the “Hug of Death,” also known as the Slashdot Effect.

Essentially, the idea is this: If you run a site that gets picked up on a popular aggregator, so many people are likely to go visit that it disables your site entirely. In a way, it’s an inversion of the Streisand Effect, in that its growing popularity actually chokes its success by overexposing it.

In a way, Hackintosh survives because it’s not too overexposed. It occasionally shows up on popular tech YouTube channels like Snazzy Labs and Linus Tech Tips and frequently gets highlighted in mainstream technology publications, but it’s something that is too hard for a regular Mac user to do and has the unintentional side effect of teaching Apple about technical issues that it is looking to avoid in later iterations of its hardware. Not enough people are hugging it to kill it just yet.

Sure, there are worries that Apple will use its T2 security chip, which it has added to its recent devices, to shut out Hackintosh users someday, or that the company’s embrace of a custom ARM chipset will eventually render the Hackintosh obsolete. That said it should be noted that some hardware virtualization techniques for the ARM-based iOS already exist, with one being offered by a startup named Corellium. (Corellium’s use case, targeted at mobile developers and security researchers, was acquired by the boutique hacking shop Azimuth Security last year.)

As tools like KVM can replicate chipsets like ARM on x86 platforms, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that options will still exist if Apple does change things up in a few years, even if it changes what exactly a Hackintosh is.

Apple can learn technical things from the things Hackintosh breaks internally, whether by highlighting flaws inside the kernel or by introducing hardware that may eventually show up in a future Apple system, but the existence of this gray-area market in the first place highlights the disparities between Apple’s marketing—thin and light machines, whether on a desk or in a bag—and what its most engaged power users actually want.

“In the end, I don’t think Apple trusts the OS,” Chato argues. “That’s what really bothers me. I don’t think they realize that if they put MacOS in a nice, plain box that doesn’t thermal throttle it will sell really well. It’s the OS, stupid.”

For a company known for its dramatic risks, perhaps the riskiest move it could make is listening to this fan base that clearly isn’t served by its current offerings.

It’s no butterfly keyboard mechanism, but it could be a game changer.