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Reality Absorption Field: The Mac clone that wasn't

One could say that the Apple of the Michael Spindler era was like today's Apple in name only. However, even that is not quite true. (Apple dropped the "Computer" from its name just over six years ago.)

In the mid-'90s, Apple had an aggressive if conflicted Mac cloning program. Beige boxes from the likes of Power Computing, UMAX and Motorola were available. At that time, there had been concerns that licensing the Mac OS to a really big PC vendor would create more competition than Apple could handle. Nevertheless, there were persistent rumors that Dell, for one, was interested. Coincidentally, long after licensing ended, the Round Rock, TX-based PC company was early to offer a "Mini" netbook that could easily be turned into a "Hackintosh."

These were aberrations in a long rivalry between Apple and Dell that has been filled with contrasts. As Apple focused on building its own vertically integrated PCs, Dell was a master of supply chain and cost reduction in the PC clone model. Dell was welcomed through the front door by most IT departments; Apples were snuck in by enthusiasts. Dell was an early e-commerce poster child selling its PCs direct online, but Apple ultimately trumped it selling its PCs via its white-walled physical stores. And Michael Dell infamously said during Apple's darkest days that he would close down the company and give the money back to the shareholders.

Today, of course, the tables have turned. Apple is one of the world's most valuable companies and Dell has opted to flee public markets, perhaps even veer away from the PCs that are the last vestige of the company's roots as a direct sales pioneer. But a twist of fate may have OS X plastered across the screens of PCs from Dell -- and other PC vendors -- after all. As part of its work with Wyse, the "thin-client" company that Dell acquired last year, the company has developed a device and service called Project Ophelia.

Ophelia is a USB stick-sized computer that runs Android. Several of these have come to market. But there would be links to what would presumably be a Dell-powered cloud that could serve up a host of different computing environments similar to how OnLive or CloudOn -- or Wyse's own PocketCloud -- do on the iPad today. Those environments could include Windows, Linux or OS X.

Of course, accessing OS X remotely, even in a world that offers ever more prevalent and speedy mobile broadband, is not the same as running it on Apple hardware or even a well-designed Hackintosh. And any number of remote apps can call up an OS X desktop to a Mac, PC, iPad or Android tablet. But Ophelia represents the greatest deviation from standard Windows computing that we've seen from Dell since its short-lived Android tablet dalliance, and the freshest idea from the company in even longer.

Time will tell if Ophelia turns out to be, like its tragic Shakespearean namesake, desperate for love, crazy, or even suicidal. But if not, a pocketable Dell device may soon be vying to be your means to OS X access.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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