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Apple likely victor in Palm USB dispute

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By Charles Starrett

Contributing Editor
Published: Wednesday, September 23, 2009
News Categories: iTunes

In the latest chapter in the ongoing dispute between Apple and Palm over the latter’s Pre handset and its ability to sync with iTunes, an USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) executive has responded to Palm’s complaint over Apple’s continuous efforts to block the device. When Palm initially released the Pre, its Mass Storage interface identified itself as an iPod, allowing it to trick iTunes and sync. Apple blocked this approach with the release of iTunes 8.2.1 on July 15, which prompted Palm to write a complaint to the USB-IF on July 22. In the complaint, Palm said Apple’s use of its Vendor ID to block other devices from syncing with its software, the method used in the iTunes 8.2.1 update to block Pre syncing, was unfair, and stated that it would issue an update which would use “Apple’s Vendor ID number for the sole purpose of restoring Palm media sync functionality,” which it did just two days later.

Now, according to BusinessWeek, USB-IF executive director Traci Donnell has written a response to Palm, stating that “Palm’s allegation (if true) does not establish that Apple is using its Vendor ID contrary to USB-IF’s policies,” suggesting that it is completely within Apple’s rights to restrict iTunes syncing to devices carrying its Vendor ID. Furthermore, Donell said that Palm’s plan to use Apple’s Vendor ID to circumvent the iTunes block is against policy, writing, “Palm may only use the single Vendor ID issued to Palm for Palm’s usage….Usage of another company’s Vendor ID is specifically precluded,” adding that Palm has seven days to “clarify its intent.” Notably, Apple’s latest iTunes releases, iTunes 9 and 9.0.1, again block Pre syncing; Palm has yet to release an update to restore functionality under the new software.

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Comments

1

Apple is really being a dick about this.  They are not hurting the iPod at all by doing this.  They are just revealing what complete idiots they are.  And they certainly make me rethink any future Apple purchases.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Posted by iPhone 3gs user and lover on September 23, 2009 at 7:50 AM (PDT)

2

Except that the way Palm is doing it goes against the Terms of Use for iTunes.  Apple provides 2 methods for actually getting the music from iTunes on any device.  The XML backups and an API.  The developer just needs to implement it.  Apple does NOT block if you use either of the 2 approved methods.

Palm may be doing it this way as a way to prevent developing the correct way or as a PR stunt to keep their name in the press.

Posted by Richard on September 23, 2009 at 7:58 AM (PDT)

3

I disagree with the first poster completely. It is within the right of any manufacturer to design a software-hardware system that they choose to pair. In Apple’s case, iTunes is positioned as part of the iPod/iPhone system, to enhance its features and increase hardware sales (where their profit margin is). Allowing another manufacturer to pair its hardware would be akin to a game console maker offering free games to sell its consoles and then having another console maker create something software compatible, advertising that *it* comes with those same free games.

Considering that Apple has always explicitly positioned and advertised itself as a closed-system, that leverages its control of both hardware and software to create a better-integrated product, how can people complain when they simply act according to this stated principle?

Further, the USB rules exist for good reason beyond this particular application. They help assure proper plug-and-play operation across many devices and their paired software and drivers. If Palm is allowed to arbitrarily break the rules, then anyone can and will. This would have negative impact on consumers who use USB products overall. There is a lot of give-and-take in developing standards to make sure everyone is on board. This allows consumers to benefit from being able to use compatible products across a large line of vendors. Vendors need to follow standards once they adopt them and advertise themselves with the names and logos of those standards.

The proper solution is for Palm to develop its own software, using its own resources instead of trying to leverage the results of another company’s investment. Or, they can make a licensing deal with Apple or with any number of other media-player developers.

Posted by David on September 23, 2009 at 8:10 AM (PDT)

4

To be honest, Richard, I don’t see that as helping Apple’s case. Sure, there are programs out there that will allow someone to sync a set of of iTunes playlists and music to a device via the information XML file, I get that. My question is then why does Apple care if someone eliminates the need for this hurdle by something as trivial as the USB identifier?

The final result is the same (I wager Pre users could probably already be using something like “iTunes Sync”), what changes is the user’s convenience, and that seems to be the only thing Apple is objecting to: that someone who likes the iTunes program enough to use it even if they don’t use an Apple branded player or phone could also sync with one step. No, Apple says that you have to use another piece of software and another step to achieve the exact same result just because. It’s, once again, the behavior of a toddler from Apple.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on September 23, 2009 at 8:18 AM (PDT)

5

It helps Apple’s case because Palm won’t now be able to use the ‘solution’ they stated they were going to use without getting on the wrong side of the USB-IF. I don’t know what the effects of that will be but I imagine it won’t be good. Thus, for the time being, syncing a Palm Pre to iTunes remains inoperable.

I’m with the people who see this as Palm’s fault to be honest. Palm decided that, rather than paying a licence fee to Apple or doing the work to use either of the given methods available, they’d just use a quick ‘hack’ to get things to work and nobody else would care. Wrong. Apple did the work and there’s no good valid moral reason why Palm should be able to effectively lie (because that’s what they’re going to be doing - their devices are going to claim to be Apple devices when they aren’t) to get around having to do the work - it’s like someone using your ID card to get into a building or pretending to be you when they get a parking ticket. It’s impersonation and it’s just wrong.
I dont’ honestly see how someone can suggest it’s perfectly fine for Palm to do this and somehow Apple are being childish for saying ‘No, I’m not going to let you make a profit off the back of the work I’ve done”.
When Apple wanted a music app, they paid an existing app developer for their code and they’ve put a lot of further work into developing it over the years. On what basis to Palm get that to use that amount of cost and investment to work for them, pretty much for free?
I’m a programmer by trade. If I took someone else’s code, bodged it to work with the spec I was given and then later it broke, I wouldn’t be able to say it was the other guy’s fault, regardless of whether the other guy broke it intentionally or not. The first thing my boss would ask me would be ‘why didn’t you do the job properly?’. Actually, no, the first thing my boss would ask me ‘Did you really think you would still have a job after this came out?’

PALM tried to take an easy shortcut rather than doing a thorough and professional job. PALM tried to profit from someone else’s hard work. PALM are the ones not playing by the rules. PALM is in the wrong here, not Apple.

Posted by Jon on September 23, 2009 at 8:42 AM (PDT)

6

Jon, it’s not that simple. Is Palm wrong for spoofing the USB identifier, yeah, I’m not going to argue that. However, how is Apple making the situation better by changing the drivers required by the given USB identifiers with each version of iTunes? Seems they’re complicating the whole plug and play aspect far more than Pre is doing.

Regardless, poster number two highlighted exactly why any of this hand wringing about profiting off of Apple’s work is crocodile tears. Apple has openly supported methods for other programs and devices to access the iTunes database files themselves. Nothing stops any program or device from benefiting from all of Apple’s hard work on iTunes, nothing.

It seems to me the logical thing to do is to allow vendors to submit their own USB identifiers to Apple for approval to be recognized by iTunes with no undue hurdles or prohibitive fees. The context of Pre’s statements says they probably already tried this and were turned down by Apple just because. Simply put, Pre owners, Creative owners, Sansa owners, iRiver owners, etc., can already manage their devices with iTunes, they just require a 3rd party program to do the actual file moving. Apple doesn’t object to that, they merely object to eliminating the 3rd party program to move the files - WHY? Apple isn’t protected in any way, but the end user is inconvenienced. It is childish.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on September 23, 2009 at 9:03 AM (PDT)

7

Any Apple user recognizes this as “the way it is”. Apple operates a closed-system for a reason. By controlling exactly what is installed or plugged in, they can better assure a pleasant user experience. This is exactly why I switched to Apple in the first place.

I owned one of the first Windows capable iPods. I was forced to use MusicMatch as my interface. It was terrible. Once I got a taste of iTunes a year later I was sold. It was the seamless integration that made it special.

Allowing PALM to simply “plug-n-play” creates a potential issue for Apple. If Pre owners using iTunes suddenly start having issues because the latest iTunes has made some changes, who do they blame? Apple. Not PALM, because the Pre didn’t change. The software did. And even though it wasn’t written (or intended in any way) to support the Pre, Apple ends up in the headlines as releasing a POS iTunes that doesn’t work.

If the Pre users want a better syncing option, they should press PALM to step up and deliver. Apple did it for it’s iPod owners. Do the work and make YOUR customers happy.

Posted by Mitch on September 23, 2009 at 10:34 AM (PDT)

8

All technical issues aside, as an AAPL shareholder,
I am offended at Apple’s conduct.

Apple will lose mindshare with it’s position, lose sales thru iTunes, and piss off many tech savy users who own an iPod and a Palm device.

This is a petty schoolyard fight. ‘Do it my way!’, ‘No, do it my way’. Childish.

Consumers just want their hardware to work with their software, period.

I won’t buy anything from either of these two companies until they BOTH get it together.

Posted by Mike on September 23, 2009 at 11:41 AM (PDT)

9

It saddens me that Palm had to go the route of having to use a backdoor to use ITunes. I loved how the Palm desktop integrated my Palm (had III, Vx and a Zire) devices. Once ITunes and my IPod touch evolved to a point where I am able to easily handle my digital media, my personal data and email and have a built in store, my Palm devices became redundant and obsolete. Apple may be “childish” about how its not letting the Pre play in its ITunes sandbox, but its Apple’s sandbox. It makes poor business sense for Apple to allow a marketed “IPhone killer” openly use ITunes. If Palm was unable or unwilling to do the work to make media library software, they could have partnered with ITunes alternatives such as JetAudio or Mediamonkey.

Posted by Chris on September 23, 2009 at 12:49 PM (PDT)

10

@Chris, I hated how Palm Desktop worked. It was clunky and HotSync was very unreliable. iSync was HotSync done right, but Palm wouldn’t improve HotSync to integrate properly with iSync. In the end they abandoned Palm Desktop for Mac and Palm owners were left using clunky obsolete software for years.
What Palm should do is write iSync and Windows Device Synchronisation Drivers for WebOS devices.

@Mike, Apple’s mindshare would be more negatively affected if Firmware updates to iPods happened to Brick masquerading Prē‘s. Apple use iTunes not only to sync with iPods, but also to update their firmware. If the firmware for a certain iPod accidentally got installed on a Prē, the common opinion would be that it was Apple’s fault, even though Palm was the company performing subterfuge.

Posted by Dan Woods on September 23, 2009 at 2:03 PM (PDT)

11

But Code Monkey, it’s not that simple either.  With the current situation, if syncing between Pre/Creative/Sansa/etc. and iTunes doesn’t work, it’s a problem for the third party software developer to try to resolve.  If Pre/Creative/Sansa/etc. comes out with new models that interacts with iTunes in some unexpected way, again it is a problem for the third party software developer to try to resolve if it can.  They also don’t have to test each new version of iTunes to make sure that it works with every piece of hardware Palm/Creative/Sansa/etc. might conjure up.

By not officially supporting these other manufacturers hardware, and by not allowing for a “direct” connection between such hardware and iTunes, Apple is attempting to maintain the simple integrated expereince that has become the hallmark of the brand, and avoiding the potential development and support nightmare that they would have to take on.

So it’s not Apple being childish.  It’s Apple protecting itself.

Posted by Tom Westfield on September 23, 2009 at 2:17 PM (PDT)

12

I think a key point to keep in mind here is that it was Palm who originally broke the rules by spoofing the vendor ID in the first place, essentially pretending to be a fifth-generation iPod as far as iTunes was concerned.

While there may be room for argument that Apple’s territorial attitude toward what can connect to iTunes needs to change, I don’t think you can in good faith blame any company for getting a bit miffed when a competitor is trying to essentially masquerade as one of that company’s products.

I think that Microsoft would have a similar response if the Palm Pre were trying to pretend it were a Zune, and Canon would probably take issue with Nikon if they suddenly released a camera that pretended to be a 5DMarkII.

The second issue is that by trying to pretend it’s something it’s not, you’re already running into limitations as to what will and won’t work. iTunes thinks it’s dealing with a 5G iPod?  So what happens when you try to sync an iPod Game to the Palm Pre?  The Games tab will show up if you have any games in your library, but I doubt very much that the Pre will be compatible with them. How are Smart Playlists handled on the Pre?  What about ratings and play counts?

On the other hand, I understand Code Monkey’s earlier point that perhaps Apple could open up iTunes a bit more—even providing a manual-management drag-and-drop interface right to the iTunes Devices’ list would be a reasonable compromise for many people… You can already drag-and-drop your playlist content out of iTunes, it’s just that right now you have to go to a Windows Explorer or Finder window to drop it onto your player.

However, the question has to come down to what the motive would be for Apple to do even this, much less provide a more robust sync solution?  I suppose they could make some kind of licensing fees over providing an interface to iTunes for competing players, but is it really good business for them to have to start supporting everything else that’s out there?  Would the licensing fees really make up for the additional R&D and engineering effort required to provide and support this capability?  Would it stifle innovation on the iPod/iPhone/Apple TV sync side by trying to always ensure they were providing backward compatibility to anything else out there?  Personally, I can’t see how doing this really would be worth Apple’s time or effort…  It provides almost zero business benefit to Apple at the end of the day, and just adds more headaches. 

Let’s face it: There are a lot of other things I’d rather see them be doing with iTunes than spending engineering resources supporting other people’s hardware, especially considering how much trouble they seem to be having in supporting their own lately….

Posted by Jesse Hollington in Toronto on September 23, 2009 at 3:50 PM (PDT)

13

“Let’s face it: There are a lot of other things I’d rather see them be doing with iTunes than spending engineering resources supporting other people’s hardware, especially considering how much trouble they seem to be having in supporting their own lately.”

I don’t really feel like beating this horse much more, but I’d like to point out that Media Monkey manages to maintain a much higher degree of compatibility than the kludged iTunes & Pre matchup that prompted all this with players from over a dozen manufacturers, and they do this with a fraction of Apple’s programming team or budget. On top of that, unlike this scenario, they’re doing so for players that never explicitly set out to comply with any particular file and database standard. On the other hand, what it comes down to is a file structure and an index database of it, that’s pretty basic code.

Apple’s problems with supporting things are a function of “we don’t care enough to bother” not a function of “we can’t honestly do this”.

Besides, it’s hard to argue that iTunes isn’t becoming the de facto standard for media management. The software is as much impediment to competition as anything else. With the exception of those die hards who never adopted using software to begin with, who’s going to give up their carefully tweaked, easily searchable iTunes library with nearly a decade of development under the hood for some bare bones program cobbled together in a year (or less)? Have you seen what Microsoft did to the Zune software when they scrapped the code they had and completely re-wrote it for 2.0? The 1.X releases were much more useful, just not filled with all the silly eye candy. And that’s Microsoft with truck loads of cash and enough programmers to start a new country.

I’m not saying it can’t be done, and I’d welcome either someone taking on the task of making a program better than iTunes for media management or, at least, making their player explicitly compatible with Media Monkey. However, it’s way too flippant by far to say Palm or whoever just should develop their own software - if you do it right, you’re probably investing more resources than the device it’s meant to support took to develop, and that means you’re now not only doubly invested, but you’ve now committed to two possible points of failure (c.f. Zune). The market needs some real alternatives to the situation we’re in now where good products hardware wise fail because Apple wields the success of iTunes like a cherubim with a flaming sword at the gateway.

Posted by Code Monkey in Midstate New York on September 24, 2009 at 3:49 AM (PDT)

14

Well, to be fair, MediaMonkey has less to deal with synchronizing, since it doesn’t handle video content or apps, nor does it do anything like iTunes’ Smart Playlists, which is the specific area where Apple seems to keep having the most problems lately.

I agree that it’s a question of not caring enough to bother, but as I pointed out above, I can’t see any valid reason why they should care about supporting anything beyond their own devices.

As for iTunes becoming a defacto standard, other than the iTunes DRM (which only exists on video files these days) there’s really very little “lock-in” involved, since they’ve kept the library pretty wide open with the XML file. Anybody could easily release another software package that would happily import all of your tracks and metadata from iTunes.  It just seems that even those organizations with a battalion of programmers can’t be bothered to do this either.

In terms of Palm writing their own media management software, I agree that it’s unreasonable to expect them to come up with something that revolutionary, but the fact is that there are other APIs for integrating with iTunes that they could easily and legitimately be using with their own sync software. Both RIM and Nokia have pulled this off very successfully, and their solutions are actually quite good. Check out my Backstage article about the Nokia E90 for an example of what I’m talking about, and that was two years ago. IMHO, it’s the same idea as what Palm should have done in the first place.

Tt actually boggles my mind why Palm is even insisting on playing these games with Apple rather than trying to create their own sync application. They could actually do more with their own app than even iTunes provides, encourage their own “branding” on the desktop, and certainly provide a better experience for their users.

Consider the difference between a Palm Pre that pretends to be a 5G iPod and requires end users to ignore half the options in iTunes (since they wouldn’t be supported on the Pre), versus their own desktop sync software that could provide additional Pre-specific features and even offer additional capabilities such as syncing via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth—something that iTunes still doesn’t do.

Posted by Jesse Hollington in Toronto on September 24, 2009 at 5:41 AM (PDT)

15

Apple’s only obligation to users of iTunes is that it works seamlessly with all Apple devices. iT is part of the DNA of the iPod and iPhone. Apple has no obligation to make iT sync with any other devices. I think they’re well within their rights to use their vendor ID as they see fit with their software and hardware. If Palm intends to have any credibility, they should be providing their users with their own audio/video syncing solution or to support a third-party solution that does.

Now, if Apple had a licensing program to allow other devices to sync with iT, Palm could have participated legitimately. Apple doesn’t, and Palm did not have the right to hijack iT by any means. If it was my sandbox and Palm came in uninvited, I’d kick their butts out too.

If Palm doesn’t respect their own customers enough to provide a media management solution for Pre/Pixi owners, then they deserve to fail.

And this is coming from a former long-time Palm PDA owner and admirer, who found Palm treating Mac users like 2nd class citizens in the later years.

Posted by Walter on September 25, 2009 at 3:24 AM (PDT)

16

I think Richard (#2) is onto something. It’s probably just as much a PR stunt as anything else. Besides, can’t they still technically advertise that the Pre works with iTunes (ver 8.0 or earlier)?

Yes, Palm needs a slap on the wrist for violating USB-IF policy, but from the wording of the article, Apple intentionally set out to break iTunes’ functionality with the Pre. The problem I have, if that’s indeed the case, is that you would think iTunes developers would have more important things to devote their resources to (like fixing bugs).

Apple must feel pretty threatened by the Pre to take such counter-measures.

Posted by Paul on September 28, 2009 at 2:30 AM (PDT)

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