I am puzzled in more than one way about the conflict arising around Apple and Palm regarding Palm’s “hack” to gain access to iTunes and Apple’s willingness to fight back. What puzzles me most, however, is why Palm is interested in iTunes-support at all.
Several things are odd in this dispute between the two tech companies. First, instead of writing an own sync client for the Pre, which would be incredibly simple to do, Palm insisted on using a flaw in iTunes device recognition to identify the Pre as an iPod. The only real advantage of this, as far as I can see it, would be to spare iTunes users of installing an additional application. Maybe it could also encourage old iPod users to buy a Pre instead of an iPhone. However, the obvious disadvantage was that it certainly would upset Apple. Also, support for this hack couldn’t be sustained with certainty, so advertising it as a feature, which Palm did, wouldn’t exactly be a neat idea.
However, I did not expect Apple to respond in the way they did. Only a short time after the Pre introduction they released an iTunes update that patched the hole that Palm used to recognise the Pre as an iPod. I don’t really see the rational argument for this from Apple’s side. It was a hack, Apple clearly stated that they could not ensure compatibility with future iTunes versions, and it didn’t really lose the company any money. Instead, it tied another product to iTunes, allowing Apple to further advertise how nice the Mac-iPod-iPhone-OSX ecosystem works. Until Palm became a major competitor in the mobile phone market, I saw nothing to worry about. Besides, in chess it is always better to keep a threat, rather than playing it.
However, Apple pulled the plug on the Pre in the new iTunes update, and Palm’s response did surprise me even more. Very quickly, Palm released the 1.1 update of the Pre system software, once again allowing it to sync with iTunes. This time, Palm was using a spoofed vendor ID, which is part of the USB specification. The use of these ID:s are specifically mentioned in the specification, and using another company’s vendor ID is strictly prohibited. But, Palm did not stop here. Instead, they accused Apple for breaking the rules of the standard when not allowing any device to sync with iTunes. While this might be breaching the open intentions of the USB specification, I do not know how to judge in this issue as I am no expert on the rules, Apple is certainly not alone in checking the vendor ID:s before letting software communicate with hardware. The same is true for some music mixing software that is only to be used with specific mixers. Palm is thus aiming for big fishes (or big trouble) here.
No matter who is right and who is wrong, the big point still remains unanswered: why is Palm doing this? What makes them so desperately interested in iTunes compatibility, so that they not only break the USB standards themselves, but also accuse Apple for doing the same? In what way is it worth fighting another big tech company over something that could be sorted out be some licensing, or by Palm writing their own software?
The only reason I can think of is publicity. Palm is in desperate need to get some traction to their products. The Pre is two years behind the iPhone, it does not really run native apps like the iPhone, it will have a hard time attracting developers as it has a so small installed user base, it is on the wrong network so it needs to be modified to be sold in Europe, etc. etc. etc. Thus, Palm really need something that attracts attention. And they need the Palm to look cool. So, why not attacking some other big tech company, accusing them for locking in users in a iTunes-iPhone relationship? Why not pretend to be the rule-breaking rebel, that stands up for freedom of the USB peripherals? Why not doing this in a way where clever “hacks” are advertised as features? Probably, this publicity can generate some hype around the Pre, which in many ways is the same phone Apple already released two years ago, with the same small user base as the iPhone had back then, and still using web-based apps instead of a native set of API:s. It’s sure some creative thinking from a company that desperately needs a success product.
For further reading on the Palm Pre – Apple issue, I recommend Daniel Eran Dilger’s series on the subject:
Palm Pre: The Emperor’s New Phone
The Imagined War between Apple and Palm: Pre vs. iPhone
Why Apple’s Tim Cook Did Not Threaten Palm Pre
Why Apple is killing the Pre via iTunes
The Palm Pre/iPhone Multitasking Myth