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eMachines, Future Power slapped with writs. Good

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Analysis Apple's legal strike against two computer vendors -- Future Power and, just last week, eMachines -- for allegedly ripping off the iMac's styling took me straight back to the early 80s. In that dim, distant and pre-Mac era, Apple regularly sicked its lawyers on computer suppliers -- usually, but not always, Far Eastern ones -- for offering machines with Apple II-style cases. Back then, the issue of stealing the look of a computer was rather more clear cut than it is today. Many cloners used an Apple II case as the template for their own plastic molding work -- literally. Looking at a... well, thanks to Apple's lawyers the offenders' names are long since forgotten, but the point is you couldn't think anything else but 'Apple II' -- the cases were identical. eMachines' eOne, like the Future Power ePower before it, isn't such a close imitation, but it's impossible to look at one without thinking 'iMac'. All three computers sport all-in-one shells designed in two-tone blue and white plastic, a theme that extends to their mice and keyboards. True, the iMac's case is translucent, the eMachines' case transparent and the ePower's plastic opaque, but you can see Apple's point. Designs on the iMac The company's official line is that both eMachines and Future Power could easily have come up with an all-in-one design that didn't look so much like the iMac. Since Apple itself has done so itself on many occasions -- the first Mac, the SE, the Plus, the Classic, the Color Classic, the Performa 5200 et al -- claims from the alleged cloners and others that there's only so many ways you can create a PC with a built-in screen simply don't wash. Nor, frankly, do claims that the ePower, for one, was "based on a totally different concept from the iMac", as a Future Power spokesman put it immediately after Apple fired off its writ against the company. Future Power can argue that since it's machine is a Wintel box, it's totally different from the iMac, but since both machines are aimed at the same buyers in the same sector of the computer market and sold through broadly the same channels... well, you decide just how "totally different" that is. The eMachines guys, meanwhile, can at least say their computer doesn't look quite as much like the iMac as the ePower does. Their line has been that they came up with the design before the iMac was released. Quite possibly, but then failing to deal with the similarity once the iMac had been unveiled, particularly given their choice of colors leaves the company's tact open to question at the very least. Besides, eMachines did itself no favors by allowing a spokesman to get away with saying the company was hoping to trade off the iMac's success. That, at least, is how the statement has been reported, and eMachines has yet to deny that its spokesman said that, probably because it has been feeding stores stocking the eOne with a list of ten points why customers should choose one of the machines instead of an iMac. Not another Wintel machine, you'll note, but an iMac. And don't forget that eMachines is no stranger to this kind of litigation: Compaq slapped a patent infringement suit on the company and its Korean parents, Trigem and Korea Data Systems, last month, alleging the cut-price PC company 13 patents owned by Compaq. The details of the patents are complex, but you can read a summary here. The Big Q's case Compaq will probably have a harder time with its case that Apple will. Proving patent infringement, particularly at such an abstruse technical level, often takes time, and while 'trade dress' law -- how a product looks -- is less well-defined, at least Apple can say that the iMac is so damn distinctive that another machine shipping in anything remotely like it can't help but look like a knock-off. But just because Apple has a case for eMachines and Future Power to answer, does that mean it should force them to do so? Component companies are already offering multi-colored, translucent plastic cases to PC vendors. Iwin, the European hardware company that wants to resurrect the Commodore Business Machines brand for its entry into the Amiga market, has said it will use them too. The point is, there will come a point when translucent, colored computer cases are everywhere and while Apple can say: 'We thought of that first,' it isn't going to be able to do much about it. Then there's precedent. Apple's original PowerBooks arguably set the standard for notebook PC design, and they were duly imitated by almost every portable computing company to the point where Apple really did lose sales. Yet it didn't start firing legal broadsides at its numerous competitors. True, such action would probably have been harder to win, but back then the first PowerBooks weren't much less distinctive than the iMac is now, relative to other products in its class. Future in the balance However, back then Apple's future wasn't hanging on the ongoing success of the PowerBook, and that's not something you can say about Apple circa 1999 and the iMac (and, when it ships, iBook). When Apple sued Microsoft for allegedly ripping off the MacOS, it could afford to lose the case. That action was more about restraining the Gates Gang than ensuring the company's didn't collapse in six months' time (arguably, Windows was always going to make a minority operating systems out of the MacOS since the Intel hardware base was so much wider than Apple's -- an Apple victory would simply have given the company a new revenue stream). The case against eMachines and, to a lesser extent, Future Power, can be seen as a survival issue. It's easy to be blase about how much easier the MacOS is than Windows, and that the iMac is better constructed that the eOne (at least, we hope it is -- just because the iMac is more expensive is no guarantee), but the eOne's $300-plus price advantage, when combined with even vaguely iMac-esque styling will swing some consumers in it favor. eMachines is a threat to traditional PC vendors -- even the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq say so. That means Apple has to fight to protect its sales, and if that means using the law -- whether to win damages and a ban on the eOne and ePower, or simply to limit sales in the short to medium term -- you really can't blame the company for taking action to limit the arrival of hordes of Far Eastern knock-offs to undercut its margins -- just like the good old days, in fact... ® Related Stories Apple taps Gap for iBook colour scheme Apple, Cisco invest in Net content delivery service OS-9 developer set to battle Apple's Mac OS 9 Eclipse update: Apple PR stunt shocks World

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