The Palm Pre is an iPod? Yes, But We’ll See How Long That Lasts


A big story recently is how the Palm Pre syncs seamlessly with iTunes. It does so by making itself appear to be an iPod to iTunes.

Further details came out during an interview at the All Things Digital conference that indicate only non-DRM music and photos can be synced. It’s unclear whether non-DRM videos sync, or whether it syncs other iTunes data (bookmarks, contacts, podcasts, etc.).

Even with those restrictions, the ability to plug in and use iTunes to sync music is a pretty big deal. How can Palm do this? Why did they do this? What, if anything, should Apple do?

Back in Time

To help understand this, consider that Palm’s Executive Chairman, Jon Rubenstein, is an Apple alumnus. Steve Jobs approached him in 1990 to run hardware engineering at NeXT. Ultimately, NeXT couldn’t compete in hardware and became software-only. After disassembly of NeXT’s hardware manufacturing, Rubenstein formed a new company, Firepower Systems, that was bought by Motorola in 1996.

What did Jobs think of Rubenstein? Well, Jobs approached him after Firepower’s sale to work for Apple. Keep in mind, at this time Jobs was not CEO, or even the interim CEO. He was simply a “consultant” to Apple.

What did Rubenstein think of Jobs? Well, he accepted a position at Apple. Remember, at that time Apple was beleaguered, doomed, nearly bankrupt, etc. Many claims were exaggerated, but no one considered Apple a smart gig at the time. Further, Rubenstein had just sold a company; he could have kicked back, or written his own ticket for a more impressive job. Still, he went to work for Apple.

Rubenstein’s years at Apple were a great success, ones that saw him help to oversee the iMac, G4/G5 Macs, the Titanium PowerBook and of course, the iPod. I don’t mean to say Rubenstein “did it all,” rather only that he was part of a great Apple team doing great things. Perhaps Jobs’ greatest strength is his ability to assemble a team of like-minded individuals and keep them focused. Rubenstein was a vital part of that team.

Some in the Apple community are critical of Rubenstein now, but he didn’t leave Apple for Palm. He left in April 2006. It was 18 months — in October 2007 — before he assumed the position at Palm. Why? Look back at when he took the Apple job. It was a company in trouble, with extreme challenges ahead. Who would argue Palm isn’t in a similar position? I can’t presume to speak for the man, but it’s no surprise to me he’d want to get back in the game after more than a year, and at a place where there was much work to do.

Time at Palm

In the time he’s been at Palm, Rubenstein has attempted to bring with him things learned at Apple. Quoting him from the interview link above:

“I worked with Steve [Jobs] for many years and learned a tremendous amount from him, the value of user experience and design — taste. I also learned the idea of great marketing…On the engineering side, I helped created the engineering culture at Apple so obviously, the engineering culture at Palm bears some similarities to it.”

It’s also interesting to hear Rubenstein speak of Palm. It’s not unlike how Jobs spoke of Apple during his first years back in Cupertino:

“We hired a lot of new people into the company,” says Rubenstein. “Palm is a new company today…Palm had tremendous assets. The DNA is there. The way of thinking about great products is there.”

Discussing Apple’s DNA, and thinking about great products, are all a part of the Jobs mantra.

The culmination of this was development of the Palm Pre. There are volumes of opinions and information on this device so I’m not getting into it here. It’s launching June 6 exclusively on Sprint, and in a few weeks we’ll know more about its prospects for success than we can learn from any criticism or praise we can read about it now. Still, the revelation that the Pre is seen as an iPod within iTunes is a big deal. One that brings up issues for both Palm and Apple.

Look! It’s an iPod!

Making the Pre appear as an iPod likely required inside knowledge Rubenstein possesses that other smartphone makers do not. It’s not this “leg up” on other smartphones I begrudge Palm, but rather the appearance they’ll have as being an “equal” in the iTunes environment. It’s not known for sure how Palm did this, but this is a very likely hypothesis. I think using an “entry” into iTunes learned at Apple is something Apple should have something to say about. I see it as the use of software to which you’re not permitted.

Yes, if the sync is limited to non-DRM music, videos and photos, a large part of the iTunes ecosystem is left behind. But that’s not what Palm would be trumpeting, nor the likely perception. Even the recent headlines are about how the Palm syncs smoothly with iTunes, appearing just like an iPod. I’m not sure Apple should allow this. I’d think they’d protect their ecosystem from any non-Apple devices that intrude on it. I think Apple should correct the issue via an iTunes update ASAP.

Get Ready for Apple Bashing

Of course, if Apple releases an iTunes patch to address this — and therefore “breaks” the Pre — there will be howls of protest. Apple should do it anyway.

I’ve managed enough Technical Support groups to know that by appearing as an iPod, Apple will get iTunes support questions about syncing with a Pre. Sure, they can say it’s not their hardware, go to Palm, etc., but then we’re in the world customers hate the most: that of one vendor pointing fingers at the other. The fact that one of the vendors entered uninvited and unsupported will not be taken into consideration by those critical of Apple.

And, let’s face it, Palm knows this is wrong. When asked about it, Rubenstein dodged the question. Twice:

How is Apple going to feel about that, asks Walt. Rubenstein dodges a bit, noting that there are a variety of ways of getting music out of iTunes. Walt pushes back, pointing out that this is the first non-Apple device that is recognized as an Apple device by a Mac. Rubenstein dodges again. Seems he’s pretty obviously using his Apple knowledge here. McNamee jumps in. Apple is “practically a monopolist,” he says, adding that people should be able to use music that they purchase in whatever way they see fit.

It isn’t just that Rubenstein avoided the question, but McNamee jumping in with the “M” word sealed the deal. Palm has no legitimate answer, and would rather imply Apple is a monopoly so Palm can do whatever they want. Yeah, that argument will get you far.

Where Does This Lead?

Though a bit underhanded, I won’t excoriate Rubenstein’s team for doing this. He knew of a non-iPod way into iTunes and used it. Maybe it’s a mistake by Apple; the exposure is there to begin with. However, I don’t agree with Palm’s decision; I think it’s more a deliberate PR stunt than anything else. Grab all the positive press they can about being an iPod, and then grab Apple-bashing press when (if?) Apple prevents it.

I certainly won’t excoriate Apple for blocking a Pre “iPod.” It’s what they should do. The sooner, the better. McNamee will complain, but given his statements on the Pre the last few months, that won’t be a surprise. Rubenstein might complain, but I think from his dodging the question above he expects it to happen.

Finally, this has nothing to do with what Apple thinks about the Pre — the device has miles to go before Apple will have trouble sleeping at night (though Microsoft might need a sleeping pill or two). Rather, it has everything to do with denying Palm a seat at the table to which they’re not entitled. Let the Pre use the old iTunes API, if possible, as others have, but not appear as an iPod. I don’t see why Apple should stand idly by while a third party walks in and acts as an equal member of the iPod/iTunes system.


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