Apple II clones

In the 1980s, IBM wasn’t the only company with a clone problem. Apple II clones were less common, but a surprising number existed.

Some people know it was Apple’s lawsuit against clone maker Franklin Computer that established that software could be copyrighted.  But that wasn’t the end of Apple II cloning in the United States and it certainly wasn’t the end of Apple II cloning abroad.

According to a now-defunct web site, there were a staggering 168 different known Apple II clones.

Why cloning was possible

In the 1970s and 1980s, Apple used off-the-shelf components in its Apple II line. That meant anyone could buy the same chips, just like the situation with IBM cloning. Some cloners made improvements. Others lifted the circuit board design completely. Some even copied the casing, down to the trademarks.

The difference with Apple was that Apple did provide much of the software. Cloners could go to Microsoft and get the Basic interpreter, but Apple made the rest of the operating system. Apple wasn’t interested in selling it to anyone else. So cloning it legally was difficult. Many cloners didn’t care.

Cloning in the United States

Laser 128 Apple II clone
This VTech Laser 128 was the only completely legal Apple II clone. VTech took steps to avoid legal action. Cloners outside of the United States usually didn’t need to bother.

Franklin Computer took a calculated risk and just copied the software. That ended up not working. Apple didn’t completely sue Franklin out of business, but came close.

Not long after Franklin left the market, the VTech Laser 128 appeared. It seems to be the only completely legal Apple II clone ever made. VTech did a clean-room implementation of the ROM, and got Microsoft to sell them the same Basic interpreter they sold Apple. It sold at Sears and appealed to people who wanted Apple compatibility at a Commodore price.

Another interesting Apple II clone was the Mimic Systems Spartan, which plugged into a C-64 to turn it into a C-64/Apple II+ hybrid.

Cloning abroad

I also know there were some Soviet clones, but I know little about them other than they existed and that an ilicit hacker culture developed around them. The Prawetz 82 was one example. I vaguely remember reading about it decades ago, but no longer have the book or article that talked about Soviet hackers. There was little that Apple could do to stop the Soviets from cloning their machines.

A similar situation existed in South America. Apple may or may not have been able to sue. But winning in a courtroom in a U.S.-hostile country was even less likely.

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