Apple’s recent tech note regarding third parties using iTunes’ syncing has caused plenty of discussion. Should Apple “break” the Pre’s ability to sync as an iPod? Why would Cupertino do this? The comments across the web vary in their opinions, so I’ll throw mine in here […]


Apple’s recent tech note regarding third parties using iTunes’ syncing has caused plenty of discussion. Should Apple “break” the Pre’s ability to sync as an iPod? Why would Cupertino do this? The comments across the web vary in their opinions, so I’ll throw mine in here as well.

First, it’s no secret what I think of Palm’s decision to hack its way into iTunes as an iPod. I also believe Apple should put a stop to it. But in a broader view, this isn’t just about Palm or the Pre.

Let’s look at the three most common positions in this debate.

Apple hates competition

There are those who think Apple “breaking” the Pre’s ability to sync is because Apple doesn’t want competition. This is the view I have the least patience with, and disagree with the most.

I have no idea how these people define “competition,” but I fail to see how any reasonable definition could possibly include not writing your own software, and instead hacking into someone else’s. The whole competition angle is a red herring, in my opinion. It has nothing to do with that.

Grin and bear it

There are those who think Apple doesn’t have to like it, but shouldn’t waste the time or resources to put a stop to it.

Fair enough, I suppose, and if a large effort were required, there may be some value in this. But the details I’ve read seem to indicate the time needed would be pretty small. Seems to me it could be easily rolled into the next iTunes update and, with a new OS and iPhone model coming out now, the next bug fix release is likely to be pretty soon.

Close the hole that’s being hacked

And there are those, like me, who think Apple should close the “loophole” that allows Palm to do this in the first place. I touched on why I think this before, but here’s a summary:

  • While third-party players can use iTunes (as a mass storage device), and many of them do, the “sync” capability is a differentiating feature Apple wrote and provides to iPods only. Common sense would suggest it’s Apple’s to allow (or not) for other devices. Palm’s feigned surprise is disingenuous at best. Obviously Palm know it’s a great feature or it wouldn’t have hacked the software in the first place.
  • The idea that someone can trick iTunes into being an iPod never came up before. One could argue it’s a hole in iTunes that needs to be closed.
  • Apple will get calls for support if this is not stopped and there are issues with Pre syncing. I would argue that the release note was more a preventative measure (though futile) against that than it was any specific warning to Palm, because no such warning should be required when a third party hacks your software — it ought be understood.

But there is another reason, one even more important than the others. Until now, no one exploited the hole because they didn’t know about it. Palm had the advantage of lots of ex-Apple talent, so it knew just what to do. Good for Palm, but now that it’s shown the smartphone world how to pull this off, what’s to stop others from doing it as well?

In other words, forget the Pre, or even Palm. There’s an exposure for iTunes here that could have BlackBerrys, LGs, Nokias, etc. all passing themselves off as iPods. Again, the obvious question to me is that, having learned there’s this hole in iTunes, Apple should take steps to close it. An iPod can be an iPod, and the rest can be, well, the rest. If they want seamless syncing, they can write their own software to do it.

I have no idea what Apple will do here. I’ve already stated I think the tech note is less a warning and more a preemptive “CYA,” but a company that prides itself on customer service will not want to continually refer Pre owners to a tech note. To me, that’s a short-term thing. Ultimately Apple needs to close that iTunes hole.

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  1. Daren McDougal Thursday, June 18, 2009

    I disagree, i think people should be able to sync to whatever device they want to just as long as its compatible. Palms not asking apple to support its device its using its program. Itunes is the easiets and most capable device for the masses out today. So let the masses enjoying syncing

    1. ” Palms not asking apple to support its device its using its program.”

      I’m not clear what you think the difference is, nor am I clear the average user will think there’s a difference either. If there’s an issue, they’ll call Apple.

      Further, Palm is using Apple’s program via a software hack. Surely that means something?

  2. Daren McDougal Thursday, June 18, 2009

    So let me make sure I understand your point. You are saying apple will get a influx of support calls for the pre. I dont agree, itunes support is done through web to my understanding (I could be wrong) Im sorry I dont have a problem with people making software work for them. I just dont think its a big dea, I think Apple wants to keep Itunes closed to other players so they make more money selling Ipods. I respect your view but just don’t agree with it

    1. Daren,

      “Call” in this instance is a generic term, it doesn’t matter in what manner the issue is communicated to Apple. My point is that Apple should not have to address any issues regarding Pre syncing because there should BE no Pre syncing.

    2. “Given that they make even more money if everyone uses iTunes, I don’t see the rationale for locking everyone else out of it. If other devices synced to iTunes, they would merely consolidate their lead and get something like 95% of the market. ”

      Really? You think Apple will make more on music purchases from someone with a Pre than someone who buys a $600+ iPhone (before they also purchase music)?

  3. Joshua Pangborn Thursday, June 18, 2009

    I whole-heartedly agree with this article. Apple has spent alot of time an effort to write iTunes (“the easiest and most capable [media software] for the masses..” according to the previous commenter.). They should have the right to use that investment as a selling point for their software/hardware. No other company should be able to come along and get all of the iTunes features without making the same investment as Apple. If Palm or any other company wants easy media management and syncing, they need to put the investment in to write the software and build the ecosystem around it.

    Aside from that, any scenario where you need to specifically trick the software into allowing something is disigenous at best, and unethical at worst. It plays with the foundation of the USB spec. I, as a user and as a developer, should be confident that the device that is being identified is really the device connected.

    I aslo agree with the support issue, since the Pre identifies itself as an iPod, any crash reports or logs would be inaccurate since an iPod is not really connected. Apple should not have to pay to troubleshoot or support Palm’s device.

    I too hope they will close the hole. It should be simple. The Pre only changes its USB ID when plug into iTunes, but the root device is still listed as a Pre as I understand. Apple can change iTunes to make sure that the root device is one of their iPods. Sounds simple enough.

    1. If you ‘agree’ with this article then you don’t completely understand the problem or shall I say problems. There are two problems at play here.
      1. What is iTunes if not a stand alone app?
      2. Why is Apple trying to play both sides of the fence with iTunes?

      Question 1 is plainly obvious. Can you use iTunes without an iPod? The answer is clearly and cleanly YES. Does it offer benefits and uses as a stand alone application? Again clearly yes. I don’t think anyone is denying that Apple has created a fantastic application with iTunes. Nor is anyone trying to diminish the quality or compatibility of it. But lets be honest if iTunes was meant to only work with iPod’s or any other apple hardware, why doesn’t ship with the iPod? I mean do you need an internet connection to sync? NO!!! You need an internet connection to BUY. The whole premise of what iTunes is, is a market place for buying music, video and what ever type of media that Apple decides to throw your way. Do they charge to download iTunes if you don’t have one of their iPod’s? Of course not. They still want your money for music purchases even if you don’t have one of their audio devices.

      Now onto question 2. Come on Apple is it hardware or software you are peddling. Apple doesn’t give iTunes away with iPod’s nor is there a barrier to entry for getting iTunes. They are not going to stop someone for buying music on iTunes if they don’t have an iPod. Heck anyone can download iTunes with an internet connection. They aren’t even worried about it being a marketing tool. You don’t even have to register to download it. When I say play both sides of the fence I mean if iTunes can and is used as a stand alone application why are they insisting that it is only meant for use with Apple approved devices? Their devices are great and all, but there is a reason that other devices exist on the market. I have a 6 year old that can barely keep track of her shoes. Why on earth would I go and give her an almost $100 item to lose or better yet put through the wash? I have already taken the time and effort to put all of my music in iTunes. Dare I say hours making sure all of the albums have graphics and all of my cd’s are ripped and nicely organized into folders. Purchased music for my kids to listen to on the computer before they were old enough to be trusted with an iPod.

      The idea of allowing other devices to work with iTunes is not one of compatibility it is market power. They are trying to keep iPod’s on top. iTunes is responsible for 69% of digital music sales. So by forcing consumers to only use iPod’s with iTunes they are locking the average consumer into their hardware, but it in a fairly deceptive way.

      It isn’t that I think Apple is wrong for wanting to keep their hardware on top, but they got into the software market of pushing digital music long before they got into issues of who can work with iTunes. I realize Palm Pre is the first one to push it to extreme, but they won’t be the last.


  4. Raphaël Jacquot Thursday, June 18, 2009

    Well, I’ll attack the problem from a different angle.
    I’ve been given an iPod touch recently. It’s a nice device, I concede.
    Problems came up when I tried to install Itunes on the Wine software on my debian box…. The installation procedure never went through.
    I don’t need the multimedia stuff, I don’t need to be able to buy stuff, I just need to sync my current mp3 library to my device.
    I had to resort to installing windows in a virtualbox instance, so I could use iTunes to use my nice present.
    This is frustrating as hell.

    1. I understand that this is frustrating. I’m curious what your perspective is related to the questions in this article: do you feel that Apple is doing something “wrong” here, or are you just commenting that the Linux development community haven’t caught up to the Touch/iPhone syncing yet?

      My guess is that if you were buying your own MP3 player, you would have looked into Linux sync ahead of time, and probably gone with a non-Apple device.

    2. @dan:
      Well, it is somehow related, in a way. It’s about helping with compatibility…
      In the palm-pre issue, it’s attempting to make consumers happy with a great piece of software and somehow keeping the business alive
      in my issue, it’s keeping consumers happy that somehow don’t have either large platforms.
      When you say “the Linux development community haven’t caught up to the Touch/iPhone syncing yet”, you are pointing the wrong problem. The real issue there is that the syncing protocol is not properly documented for a free software implementation to be designed, that would allow the devices to be properly supported, so the community has to resort to reverse engineering, and it takes time and resources to obtain something that could have been done almost instantaneously if the proper doc had been available.
      You’re raising a good point. I would have, in fact, bought a non apple device, if I hadn’t been offered this one. I’m not of the generation that sells the thing on ebay if it doesn’t exactly fit my needs, I tend to attempt to adapt, seeing the proposition as a challenge ;)
      So yes, I think Apple is actually doing something wrong by not documenting the syncing protocol fully and wasting our time that way

  5. It seems like this is a pretty cut-and-dry issue of anti-competitiveness. Whether or not it’s a good thing that the Pre was able to make itself look like an iPod, it’s decidedly a bad thing that it *needed* to. It should be fully open.

    At this point, Apple dominates fully 80% of the MP3 player market, if not more. All of those people are using iTunes, due to the fact that it’s bundled and required to perform proper synching with the device.

    Now, this is all when and good when they’re a minor player in the market, but they’re the market leader in this regard. As such, most people not only have their music on an iPod, but in iTunes, and any competitor’s product has to compete with the whole ecosystem. And when I say compete, I don’t just mean on a feature-by-feature basis; look at the Pre as a smartphone; one of the thoughts of why it might not gain much traction isn’t its featureset, which is cool; it’s the apps that we’ve all got on our iPhones, which make ANY new system seem less appealing, because of cost and effort to switch.

    This is the same for iTunes, I think. iTunes is essentially monopolistic, and the rules for conduct are different when you’re the leader versus when you’re not.

    Even though you can say that “all new music is in DRM format, so who cares,” there’s the effort required to copy that all over, and the fact that for many people iTunes IS how music and media exists on their computer. There are a lot of people out there who don’t realize that your e-mail address isn’t tied specifically to the software you use to read it, and a large number of people don’t realize that you DON’T need an iPod to listen to podcasts. Most people are technically unadept (which makes sense, because how many of us drive but don’t know how to fix a car?), and this is something that needs to be considered.

    Microsoft was successfully sued for anti-trust violations for their use of IE and their bundling practices, despite a fairly handy “you’re not prevented from installing other people’s browsers” defense. By this standard, wouldn’t Apple be guilty of the same?

    1. Apple created iTunes as a loss leader for the iPod. They make practically no money on the iTunes store and no money on the iTunes software, but the software’s entire value is that it makes the iPod a better product, more user-friendly, more versatile, and just more useful.

      To compete in the music arena, Palm needed to create a device that actually performs as well as or better than an iPod. This should have meant building a best-in-class music management platform as Apple has, perphaps forging relationships with music labels to sell their music through their own electronic store. Instead they are kicking in Apple’s back door and are leveraging the existing usefulness of iTunes to add value to their product.

      The rules of conduct are only different when you are a monopoly, the only player in the game. The Zune, while less popular than the iPod, has shown that competition for music players is out there. Palm just hasn’t tried, hasn’t put in any work.

      The reason that ‘for many people iTunes IS how music and media exists on their computer’ is because it’s so easy to use and so very useful it’s taken the world by storm. That’s because it’s an excellent product, and it’s WHY people are willing to pay for iPods… which was precisely Apple’s reason for giving iTunes away in the first place.

      Calling this an anti-trust issue is silly. iTunes is free and works with or without an iPod for music and video management. If you want to bring your music with you, however, and you want to use iTunes to manage that process… you need to buy an iTunes-compatible product. If you want to be sure your product remains compatible, you need that product to be sold or sanctioned by Apple. There are tons of other options out there. I had a big music library before iTunes existed, just used Windows Explorer and Winamp. iTunes is better, so I switched.

      Also, IE was a problem for Microsoft not because it came pre-installed but because it couldn’t be removed from Windows.

    2. Steve, you’re helping me make my point and then saying you’re refuting it. :)

      Apple has a functional monopoly on the computer music industry. If you want to get all technical about it, Microsoft shouldn’t have been slapped with anti-trust because they weren’t a monopoly; aside from the fact that other browsers were freely available for their system, you could always choose a different platform. That isn’t the standard, though.

      You hit the nail on the head when you say “If you want to bring your music with you, however, and you want to use iTunes to manage that process… you need to buy an iTunes-compatible product.” That’s the problem, isn’t it? If you buy something through iTunes, and you “own” it, why should you be limited in any way as to what device to copy it to? Shouldn’t I be able to copy it wherever I like? Sure, you can say that they now sell songs DRM-free, but I’ve bought a bunch that are definitely DRMed, and their video content is still DRMed; it’s a walled-garden, but I ought to be able to get it from my computer to any device I own.

      A whole different set of rules apply to you when you go from being an option to *the* option.

    3. As you said, iTunes has removed DRM which makes all their music compatible with any program that can read AAC files. This makes them portable to just about any device.

      The DRM-ed files you bought from Apple with the understanding that the product you were buying was compatible with a certain set of products. You were free to buy the DVD instead of the iTunes version of the movie, or to buy the cd or MP3 from Amazon or a thousand other brick and mortar stores instead of the iTunes music file. But you chose the convenience and speed of the iTunes Music Store.

      As for video, can you use video you buy anywhere else in the way you describe? On Demand? XBox Live? PS3? No, video is currently locked to pretty much the device you buy it for. Even DVDs are still locked to regions.

      DRM sucked, and not being able to use that music on other devices is bull, I’m with you there. But that’s in the past.

      Let’s do this another way, let’s say when you launch iTunes, the software is launched from your iPod’s hard drive and not from your computer’s hard drive. Your music would be in Windows Explorer, but you would only be able to manage it using iTunes when your iPod was physically connected. Would that software be somehow unfairly limiting other devices? I don’t think so, and I really don’t see what the difference is.

      I guess the question is, why would Apple continue to develop iTunes if it made every other mp3 player as valuable as theirs? Why not just close down the shop, shut down the software and stop innovating? And then who does that help? Do we all remember a time before iTunes where music management was hell and nobody could solve it?

      A “functional monopoly on the computer music industry” is a pretty specific thing. I have a functional monopoly on the desk drawers in my office, but that doesn’t mean I have an actual monopoly from a business perspective. And they don’t have a monopoly on music management, Microsoft has a strong competitor that has so far been unable to catch up but may eventually. Their Zune store has seen significant improvement as it tries (and so far fails) to out-maneuver iTunes.

      I mean, what’s the end game here? Zune works with iTunes, Pre works with iTunes, iPod works with iTunes? When iTunes stops providing any incentive to buy an iPod, Apple stops making iTunes, stops driving the market forward in innovation, and we as consumers lose something valuable. The alternate is that a competitor, like Palm or Apple, creates something amazing that kicks Apple’s ass just like Apple kicked the ass of the wimpy music management software that existed before it. If you want innovation, let’s innovate. This isn’t innovation, it’s a piggy back ride.

  6. I’m with you Tom. iTunes isn’t open-source nor open-device. I don’t understand why Palm (or any hardware manufacturer) should be allowed to piggyback on 10 years of software development. Isn’t that what Songbird is for? iTunes is developed for a loss for the purpose of selling iTunes Music and iPods, neither of which include Pre/Storm/etc. If I were to buy a Canon camera, I shouldn’t be surprised if the free made-for-Nikon software I use with it suddenly doesn’t work.

    I don’t think that Apple will get a lot of support calls from Pre users if it were to close the hole though. That seems like a stretch.

  7. I disagree with the entire premise that Apple should stop this practice. This is a good article but all of you r categories reflect those that want it stopped, and it doesn’t really discuss (nor does anyone else so far), the possibility that Apple *doesn’t* want to stop this.

    In the beginning, iTunes provided support for non-Apple devices. This support still exists but hasn’t been updated for a long time. There is simply no information, no rumours, and no evidence that Apple “doesn’t want other devices using iTunes.” Everything you may have read on the web about this since the Pre came out is purest speculation based on no facts at all. They may do this, but there is no actual evidence of any kind that they intend to and much evidence of the opposite.

    Who’s to say that their recent announcement that the syncing “may fail” (because it’s a hack) in the future might not be because they intend to *update* the (already existing) program for other devices to use iTunes and in fact formalise the notion that this is okay? If Apple does want to formally allow devices to connect, it’s a no-brainer that the service would have to be updated since it hasn’t been for many years now. Indeed, if Apple does allow other devices to sync, they would certainly want them to do so on a contractual basis rather than on an unsupported hack.

    Perhaps Apple is actively working on plug-in modules and licensing agreements right now. There is certainly no evidence either way.

    1. “it doesn’t really discuss (nor does anyone else so far), the possibility that Apple *doesn’t* want to stop this.”

      Even if I agreed with the premise that Apple may want this (and I see both sides to that argument), it’s nearly impossible to believe they would do it this way.

      I mean, did Palm hack iTunes and then Apple said “Hey, wait a minute, we should have allowed this anyway, let’s let it pass”? I don’t think so.

      “There is simply no information, no rumours, and no evidence that Apple “doesn’t want other devices using iTunes.””

      First of all, we’re talking iTunes SYNC, not just iTunes. A big difference. And there is most certainly evidence that Apple doesn’t want SYNC used: They’ve published no way for it to be done! And the released Tech Bulletin certainly emphasizes that point.

      If Apple wants to open iTunes syncing, they’ll do it far, far better than this. If they’re “actively working on plug-in modules and licensing agreements right now”, then they’d STILL stop the method Palm is using now.

      Ultimately, I believe the Palm hack is separate from any discussion of whether Apple will (or should) open up syncing to third parties.

  8. I totally agree with you. I don’t think it’s fair to make use of someone’s work just like that.

    I thought it’s worth it to be on digg. http://digg.com/apple/Third_party_iTunes_Syncing_It_s_Not_Just_About_Palm

  9. When people “buy” a product they feel that they should be allowed to do whatever they want with it. “It belongs to me now, so get lost evil manufacturer, if I want to use this as a flotation device I will!” And for the most part you can, just don’t try suing evil manufacturer when you drown (hot coffee frivolous lawsuits aside).

    However, software is intellectual property and even though you may buy it (or get it for free), you never “own” it. It’s not yours. You receive a license to use the software but under strict terms. iTunes is designed to be used with Apple products. Sorry, kleptomaniacs, I know you think a box of Tic-Tacs is not something to get bothered about but it’s still stealing. As things get closer to free, the feeling that stealing them is OK increases. That is a matter for psychologists to ponder, but in this case the infringement is clear and simple. iTunes is not designed to work with other unauthorized products. Apple probably had to send out that notice just to fulfill their obligation to actively DEFEND their intellectual property lest it suddenly become “public domain”.

    Other creative works are protected in a very similar way. You buy a book, but you don’t have the right to use that book in your own product.

    Palm did a no-no and they know it. Just because the some consumers mistakenly think it’s for the general good and welfare of all internet citizens doesn’t make it right.

    1. Nobody stole a thing. They used a workaround.

      Think of it as a ‘loophole’.

  10. I think people have been taking Apple’s side because they view iTunes to be a simple, standalone application and not what it truly is: a music platform.
    Just like Microsoft’s Windows, iTunes stores people’s files, runs different applications/functions (sells them too) and connects to devices. People buy music through iTunes and they access it through iTunes.

    Apple removing Pre support is similar to a scenario where Microsoft were not to allow RealPlayer on Windows. They’re shutting people out from using their property in a simple manner, making the average consumer believe they must use iPhones/iPods to access the content on the go. That isn’t fair–even though most of us geeky types know that we can use other software to scan the hard drive for the iTunes purchases.

    Those are my 2 cents.

    1. iTunes doesn’t store any files, it points to them. Windows or OSX stores the files in a standard folder system just like any other files. Remove iTunes and your files remain where they are. Yes, it sells different applications… but only to people who already own compatible, Apple-built devices.

      Your RealPlayer analogy fails. There is no lock-in of your property here, and no deliberate and complete shutting out of other products. Users simply must choose either to own a Pre and use some other software to manage their music, or instead choose the convenience of iTunes/iPod integration. Anyone can use any of their (non-DRM) music on the Pre, because the music is just a series of files that can be moved to the Pre using any compatible software. Palm need only create their own music management software. Instead, they co-opted the work of Apple.

    2. You’re right Steve, they don’t store the files. But the typical (non-technical) user doesn’t always know that.

      And as far as Realplayer goes–it may not be the exact same scenario, it’s at least similar. In the end you have a company blocking out competitors from connecting to their product. If/when Apple finally starts getting the attention of lawmakers this ‘Apple exclusive requirement’ will start to be called a ‘anti-competitive practice’.

    3. Just like MS selling Exchange licenses to Apple, Apple should license the technology to sync with iTunes.

    4. 1. Uninformed consumers are not Apple’s problem. They can’t be made to suffer because their product is preferred over others just because it’s convenient and easy to use.

      2. Many manufacturers block out competitors from connecting to its product. Every phone I’ve ever owned has had a different power adapter, a different port on the bottom. Cameras all have proprietary software that are not designed to work with other cameras. It’s not anti-competitive to create excellent accessories for your excellent product, and iTunes is essentially an excellent accessory designed to work with iPods, but which also functions as a terrific, and free, standalone product. Can you really imagine a court telling Apple it’s FREE software is somehow anti-competitive?

      3. I agree, if Palm were to *pay* Apple for this, then that might be in Apple’s interest. But they’re not paying Apple. They’re using a loophole, and hoping their customers don’t get screwed when and if Apple decides to close it.

    5. Yes, I can Steve. Just like MS was told its FREE Internet Explorer was anti-competitive (which it was–it was MS trying to kill Netscape)

    6. Again, Microsoft including IE on its machines wasn’t what screwed them, it was the fact that users can’t uninstall it from Windows. Windows users can choose not to install iTunes, and Mac users can choose to remove it.

    7. No, the uninstall issue came about as a resolution to the problem.
      “Underlying these disputes were questions over whether Microsoft altered or manipulated its application programming interfaces (APIs) to favor Internet Explorer over third party web browsers”

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