Psystar, a Rebel South Florida Company, Takes On Apple

Robert Pedraza is a 24-year-old self-taught programmer with a thin frame, spiky dark hair, gleaming braces, and squinty eyes. His brother Rudy 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 South Florida natives — 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 firm has coded its operating system to work only on the firm's expensive hardware.

The Pedrazas' 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 bold move by the brothers 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 Doral warehouse, the giant firm with 35,000 employees and billions of dollars in revenue filed a 35-page lawsuit in California claiming Psystar was selling "unauthorized" versions of OS X.

So far, the court hasn't ruled. Indeed, in August, the brothers countersued, charging that the OS 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, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for internet free-speech issues, 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 have already fought through a turbulent childhood, losing their dad to federal prison. 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, 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 December 5, 1983. Robert followed on August 13, 1985.

The young family eventually moved to a pastel-colored home just north of the Tamiami Trail in Westchester, a blue-collar, heavily Hispanic neighborhood west of Little Havana, where Rodolfo started a series of short-lived business ventures. 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 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. In 1990, their younger sister, Michelle, was born.

But in 1991, a few months after Rudy turned 7 years old, 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 Fort Pierce drug dealers named James Middleton and Larry Munson. A St. Lucie County detective named Marvin Ashabraner had spent more than six months tailing the dealers and tapping their phones as they sold coke from their homes and a woodworking shop in downtown Miami.

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink