Craig A. Hunter


On Palm, Competition, and iTunes Sync

Back when the Pre was announced, a frequent conversation topic among developers was "competition" -- as in, it would be great to have some healthy competition against the iPhone. At the time, the Pre looked promising, and seemed to be the first viable competitor to come along and really challenge the iPhone. Sadly, nine months later, what could have been competition has really just become a tired, childish annoyance. Whatever hype and capital Palm built up around the launch of the Pre has been squandered on a pointless and trivial cat and mouse game with Apple over iTunes sync. The saddest part is that this was totally unnecessary, though Palm wants you to think otherwise.

You see, Palm doesn't need the iTunes app to sync the Pre. They don't need to draw Apple's ire, or play yo-yo with their customers over this important capability. They can sync the Pre to a customer's iTunes music library with a public, open, and documented approach that has been used by third-party developers and device makers for years. This capability was created by none other than Apple itself.

Turns out it's a simple matter of reading the iTunes music library XML catalog file on a customer's computer, and using that to create a sync capability for the Pre. Not only is that XML file plain-text and human readable, it's got a published document type definition (DTD). Apple has developed this XML approach specifically "to make your music and playlists available to other applications" (see KB HT1660).

On the Mac, you can see this "iTunes Music Library.xml" file in:


On Windows, it's located in:

\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents\My Music\iTunes\

Combined with the music files indexed by this XML catalog, you have everything you need to know to access or sync iTunes music. I don't know how Apple could be any more open or flexible about this. Clearly they took this approach to give customers access to their music in a manner independent of iTunes and Apple, now and in the future, since a well written XML file is almost like a self contained fossil record. As we've heard from Steve Jobs before, Apple is keenly aware of the issues surrounding online music sales, both from the standpoint of protecting the intellectual property of musicians and record labels, and the rights of customers.

Why Palm can't respect or understand this is beyond me. In one press statement, Palm spokeperson Lynn Fox said: "Palm believes that openness and interoperability offer better experiences for users by allowing them the freedom to use the content they own". Well, the problem is, nobody was blocking that freedom. In fact, Apple went an extra step to make sure that freedom was available to customers and third-party developers, independent of the iTunes app. But really, is it even Palm's place to be the sheriff on this topic? I don't think so.

Clearly, other companies know how to sync painlessly with iTunes music (see RIM's Blackberry Media Sync for example), so why doesn't Palm develop a syncing solution for their own hardware? The exact reason is unknown, but my guess is that it's a combination of things. Perhaps Palm doesn't have the resources to develop their own sync app. Or maybe they want some publicity. Or maybe they just want to push Apple's buttons. Who really knows. But I seriously question the strategy and brains of any company that ties critical product capabilities to the unsupported use of their competitor's software. I mean, really? Can it get any more ridiculous? Can you possibly send a more mixed, less confidence-inspiring, "we're a bunch of hacks who can't provide our own sync software for our products" message to customers?

As for Apple, it's obvious why they don't want Palm using the iTunes app -- it takes away a competitive advantage and adds a support burden with no real payoff. One reason that the iPod/iPhone and iTunes have been successful is that they work so well together. In the past, other companies just haven't been able to get this combination right, but Apple did, and they invested a lot of time and money to get it right. To let a competitor walk in and use the iTunes app capability as a selling point for a competing device obviously doesn't make sense from Apple's perspective. And since Apple nets about ten cents per song sold, any music sales revenue they'd gain from enabling a device like the Pre, with a user base that is less than 0.3% the size of the iPod/iPhone user base, would surely be chump change compared to lost hardware revenues (where they make tens or hundreds of dollars per device).

With the recent webOS 1.2.1 release, Palm is also using iTunes to sync photos (in addition to re-enabling music sync). So their dependence on iTunes grows. What's more, Palm has resorted to spoofing multiple USB IDs, including Apple's USB Vendor ID, Manufacturer ID, and product ID, and even using an iPod serial number when connecting to iTunes. Besides giving a big eff-you to the USB Implementer's Forum standards body, this sends a strong message that Palm is unwilling to offer their own sync solution and will instead do whatever it takes to keep expanding their use of iTunes, regardless of the legality or ethics.

Healthy competition? Not even close.

Past Topics:
Palm needs a home run, but bunted with the webOS SDK   July 17, 2009
Development of the Mars Flyer iPhone App   July 5, 2009
10.5.3 Fixes DNS Problems Plaguing Some Leopard Users   June 3, 2008
In an iPhone-enlightened world, Kindle has an obvious flaw   November 21, 2007
iPhone web app development has its limitations   August 20, 2007
There's way more to Intel Inside than a sticker   August 17, 2007