A new Apple licensing agreement is good news for users, says Stephen Pritchard
In Apple Computer's darker moments, a common cry has been that the Mac is too good a computer to be left in Apple's hands. This is cruel but it contains a grain of truth. As the sole manufacturer of Macs, any problems affecting Apple have affected the whole market.

Slowly, this is changing. After years of prompting by users, Apple has agreed to spread the Mac Operating System by licensing third parties to make Mac compatible machines. There are some big names on board: IBM, Olivetti and Motorola have all signed up to make Mac compatibles or Mac motherboards this year.

None of these firms has Mac OS systems on dealers shelves yet. But this month sees the UK launch of Mac "clones" by another significant player. Umax, a Taiwan-based company better known for its scanners, is entering the Mac market with its Pulsar system. At a street price of around pounds 2,500, it is not cheap, but it is powerful. According to its UK distributor, IMC, the Pulsar is the first of a series of machines that will include a business model and a cheaper machine for the home.

Umax bought the rights to build Macs from Radius, an American firm that specialises in Macintosh peripherals. But other clone-makers will follow. Several Asian companies, including the Korean giant LG (Lucky Goldstar), pledged to support the Motorola PowerPC range of chips. The Mac OS is the best-selling operating system for that chip.

The Asian interest is critical to the success of Apple's cloning programme. So far, licensing the Mac OS has been half-hearted to say the least - something Apple's new chief executive, Gil Amelio, wants to change. For their part, the Asians need to differentiate themselves from the Windows- Intel alliance, and the Mac OS is one way to do that.

Real competition might harm Apple in the short term, but it will benefit users. Recent US market share figures have put Mac sales at just under 6 per cent, a far cry from the 15 per cent the company was predicting as recently as November. Much of this is Apple's own fault. It made too many cheap Macs, while power users with big pockets could not buy a top- of-the-range machine for love nor money.

More manufacturers should bring a more reliable supply of equipment, with Apple profiting from selling the operating system. Later this year, the licensing programme will step up a gear with the PowerPC Platform (PPCP). This is a common design, based around the PowerPC chip, which will run a number of operating systems including the Mac OS. This should attract mainstream PC vendors as selling a PPCP machine is far less of a risk than building Macs. Significantly, both IBM and Motorola hold licences from Apple to sell motherboards to other PC makers.

PPCP computers will be more expensive than ordinary Macs at first, but they will bring the Mac OS to a wider audience. As well as the Mac OS, the system will run Unix and Microsoft's Windows NT. Bill Gates could yet prove an ally for Apple: PPCP reduces Microsoft's reliance on Intel chips, and Microsoft's support for the standard is critical to its acceptance among corporate clients. Buyers will be in control. If they want to run the Mac OS on a PPCP computer from IBM, they just need to install it.

Apple must be hoping that users will vote with their feet - or their mice - to do just that.