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Worms in the Apple 

Two rebels take on America's most beloved computer company.

Wednesday, Nov 11 2009

Robert Pedraza is a 24-year-old self-taught programmer with a thin frame, spiky dark hair, gleaming braces, and squinty eyes. Rudy, his brother, is a year older and a quarter-foot taller. He counters the computer-nerd image with a half-buttoned dress shirt and an intense stare.

Last year, the two young men — one relaxed and jovial, the other driven and relentless — shoved a stick in the eye of America's coolest corporation.

Robert cracked the code behind Apple Computer's elegant operating system, OS X. It's the engine that drives iPhones, MacBooks, and all the other shiny white toys the world loves. For more than a decade, the Silicon Valley company has coded its operating system to work only on the firm's expensive hardware.

The Pedrazas' South Florida company — called Psystar — legally buys the software and then installs it in boxy black desktop towers that sell for as little as $599. That's about half the price of comparable Macs.

For hundreds of buyers — and lately a score of copycats in Los Angeles and around the world — the brothers' bold move has meant freedom: Mac's acclaimed software has been liberated from its pricey hardware.

Apple hasn't taken the affront lightly. In July 2008, three months after Psystar began shipping computers from a tiny warehouse, the giant firm with 35,000 employees and billions of dollars in revenue filed a 35-page lawsuit in San Francisco claiming Psystar was selling "unauthorized" versions of OS X.

So far, the court hasn't ruled. Indeed, in August the brothers countersued, charging the OS X maker was trying to illegally inhibit trade. As with Microsoft, which lost a multimillion-dollar antitrust decision in Europe in 2004, Apple is protecting an illegal monopoly, Psystar claims.

Fred von Lohmann is the staff attorney for the San Francisco–based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for Internet free speech issues. He thinks the brothers just might prevail. "We've lived 100-plus years with the basic proposition that if you bought it, you own it," he says. "We don't let vendors reach into your living room and micromanage how you use a product. Why should Apple get away with it?"

During the past 18 months, the brothers have forked out hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, flirted with bankruptcy, and suffered mega-abuse from hostile Mac bloggers who have called them hucksters, frauds, and credit-card thieves. As a kind of threat, street-level photos of their homes were posted on some blogs.

The two plan to continue fighting. They already fought through a turbulent childhood, lost their dad to federal prison, and saw their mom accused of abuse. Rudy, the business mind behind the venture, barely escaped a cancer scare and a near-fatal brush with a drunk driver.

They're prepared to take on everything Apple's millionaire lawyers throw at them in a San Francisco courtroom, because they believe they're right, because they think the courts will eventually agree with them, and maybe most of all, because they don't like a bully telling them what to do.

Last month, the Pedrazas released a new line of Apple clone computers with the latest operating system, Snow Leopard. And for an encore, they began selling their software online so that anyone can make a pirated Mac.

"We're all in, baby," Rudy Pedraza says, grinning wildly. "Go big or get the hell out."

On July 17, 1982, a young Cuban immigrant named Rodolfo Pedraza married Maria Elena Benavides, a first-generation Cuban-American, in Miami. Rodolfo, then 25, had grown up in South Florida after fleeing Cuba with his parents soon after Fidel Castro took power.

The couple had their first child, Rodolfo Jr. — soon nicknamed Rudy — a little more than a year later, on Dec. 5, 1983. Robert followed on Aug. 13, 1985.

The young family eventually moved to a pastel-colored home in a blue-collar, heavily Hispanic neighborhood near Miami's Little Havana, where Rodolfo started a series of short-lived business ventures. In 1979, there was Dade Elevator, which folded two years later, according to state business records. Then came a company called Deco Motors, which he shuttered in 1986. Maria Pedraza, in contrast, found stable work as a legal secretary.

The boys loved to tinker. Robert vividly remembers his mom's fury when she came home to find the parts of a brand-new remote-control car spread across the living room floor. It had been disassembled down to the tiny plastic screws.

"I've always liked understanding how things work, I guess," Robert says, smiling, "even if I couldn't put it back together again afterward."

As young boys, they helped their dad take apart a boat engine, clean the pistons, adjust the belts, and reassemble it. It was a happy childhood, even if the brothers spent as much time quarreling as playing.

But in 1991, a few months after Rudy turned 7, police officers slapped handcuffs on Rodolfo and hauled him away in a squad car.

The boys' dad had been caught in a sting of two drug dealers. A detective had spent more than six months tailing the dealers and tapping their phones as they sold coke.

Cops watched Rodolfo roll into Fort Pierce in the same white and blue Chevy pickup that a known Miami drug dealer had used a few weeks earlier to deliver a bulging manila envelope of cocaine.

Exact details of the bust are unclear, but two years later, a jury convicted him of unloading at least a pound of cocaine. On Feb. 22, 1993, a judge sentenced him to 10 years in federal prison.

Soon after that, Rodolfo boarded a bus for the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, a sprawling penitentiary in North Carolina. It was home to President Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr. Today, it houses disgraced financier Bernie Madoff.

The sentence devastated Rodolfo's two young sons. Not long after their dad left for prison, the boys and their mother moved to a small home on Jose Canseco Street, just a few blocks west of Miami Coral Park Senior High School, which both brothers would attend several years later.

About The Author

Tim Elfrink


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