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


A big story recently is how the Palm (s 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 (s palm) do this? Why did they do this? What, if anything, should Apple (s aapl) 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 (s mot) 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 (s s), 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 (s msft) 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.

42 Responses to “The Palm Pre is an iPod? Yes, But We’ll See How Long That Lasts”

  1. “Music from the iTunes Store is DRM-free and works fine not only on the Pre, but any other player worth its salt.”

    You mean those that play AACs and at that – the songs that have been purchased under iTunes Plus or converted. Few MP3 players play AACs – even fewer play variable bitrate AACs which some iTunes sings are.

  2. Tom I believe you’ll find that Rubenstein MAY have broken a non compete clause – this is MOST of the reason there was that 18 month lag in major employment. The Pre was in development before he got there – that’s my hunch. I suspect he is more devious than he would have us believe and possibly was consulting with Palm while still at Apple or just left.

    I think it will be argued that Rubenstein may have been plotting with Palm for a long time – and it is my speculation that this is payback.

    I think he was somewhat “force resigned” from Apple over the AIM (Apple/IBM/Moto) partnership and PowerPC fiasco. I think somehow we’re going to find out that the infamous “PowerPC’s are better speech” that he delivered on stage in 2004 was a way to show all of us what a truly intelligent geek but doofus he is. It seems very contrived on both his part and Jobs. Jobs wanted to get rid of him for making the G5 happen and continue. Rubenstein wanted to get back at Jobs for abandoning it.

    Rubenstein is still stuck on the PowerPC/RISC platform – it’s one of the main reasons he’s at Palm – to develop for the ARM and harness/salvage his knowledge of the RISC platform.

  3. Apple dont make money off the Itunes. Its been debated by many and its true that for so many years and may be currently Apple dont make money on movies or songs they sell on Itunes store. They make money on Ipod & Iphone sale and that is their bread & butter for so many years. They wont allow any 3rd party media player or phone to sync because that means they will not sell Iphone & Ipod. But yeah if Palm is blackmailing Apple due to copyrights that is brilliant. I think Rubenstein knows what Apple infringed knowingly when they designed Iphone and using to his advantage. Its funny but Genius step by Palm and Rebenstein :-).

  4. oneAwake

    I was over on crunchgear reading an article that was discussing the Pre’s ability to sync with iTunes. Poster *Pandaman* made this comment:

    “Wrong. The Pre will definitely have I-Tunes syncing. Apple infringes on SO MANY of Palm’s patents that Apple cannot risk having Palm sue them for infringement. Take Palm patent #7,268,775, entitled “Dynamic brightness range for portable computer displays based on ambient conditions,” for example — it covers automatically adjusting display brightness using an ambient light sensor while leaving a user-selected brightness setting alone. Yep, that’s exactly how the iPhone does it: Or how about #7,007,239, “Method and apparatus for accessing a contacts database and telephone services”? Claim 10 is an almost exact description of the iPhone’s phone app — buttons for dialing, call history, contacts, and speed dial that stay on-screen as you toggle between them.

    Apple has no choice but to let Palm do what they want or they might be forced to remove many features from their precious I-phone.”

    I did not even consider this could be a possibility, Apple may be sitting on their hands because they’re afraid to spit in the wind.

  5. “This is about the iTunes Store. Selling music and movies.”

    No it’s not. Music from the iTunes Store is DRM-free and works fine not only on the Pre, but any other player worth its salt. Movies from the iTunes Store are DRM’ed and can’t be used on the Pre anyway. This has nothing to do with the iTunes Store.

    What this is about, and what the various articles are proclaiming, and what Walt Mossberg specifically asked Rubenstein about, is the Pre’s ability to act as an actual iPod within iTunes for data syncing. THAT is what this is about.

    Put simply, for buying/playing music on the iTunes Store you don’t need an iPod. The Pre is just as well off as any other player in this regard. However, for data SYNCING you DO need an iPod, and the Pre is using inside knowledge to make itself appear as such. Good for them. Now Apple should close that door.

  6. The funny thing is that with that Palm-iTunes integration Apple would get a piece of the Pre pie… one would think the fanboys would be all over this with happy grins on their puberty stricken faces

  7. Tom,

    This is about the iTunes Store. Selling music and movies.

    The iTunes Store does not predate the iPod. The iPod came out in ’01. The iTunes Store started in ’03.

    In fact, the Pre is the first device not made by Apple that has begged to have this sort of integration with the iTunes Store. Apple would love it if every smartphone user bought their music off the iTunes store. They know they are positioned to achieve a much higher market share in the digital distribution game than anyone could ever hope to achieve in the smartphone hardware game. It’s only a matter of time before all phones and pmp’s merge. Apple wants them all buying their media off the iTunes Store. I’m betting Android and Eric Scmidt might get iPod like access next. Then Blackberry.

    And I don’t think Apple fears giving other phones access. They believe they can provide the best user experience.

  8. So Tom, now you’re telling us that Palm are thieves, because they made Pre compatible with iTunes… I really do love your logic.

    PS. I do definitely agree with your assessment that it’s a PR stunt, nevertheless, strictly economically I believe it would be beneficial to both sides if there was an actual agreement allowing Palm to use the apple store on the Pre. Palm is going to sell millions of these units. Unfortunately I think it’s highly unlikely, because for one Pre is a huge endangerment to the iphones marketshare, secondly Apple likes its own sandbox far too much to allow anyone else to play with its toys.

  9. Just a few comments:

    Those of you think Palm may be “allowed” by Apple to do this, I disagree because there’s no way Apple would allow this using an iPod icon. If they ever made this a feature, it would be more than just Palm, and the icon would either be generic or representative of that device.

    Those of you thinking this helps Apple, so they must love it, are stretching a bit. The idea that the Pre is somehow going to help iTunes usage is ridiculous. iTunes pre-dates the iPod, and has been used iPod-less for a long time. People who want to use it — even though they don’t own an iPod — already are!

    Those of you thinking this is competition are the furthest off base. Competition is where Palm writes their own syncing app and makes it better than iTunes. It’s not competition when you trick the other guy’s software into working with you. It might be theft, but it’s certainly not competition.

  10. Andrew,

    Palm is doing all the legwork for Appke here. They are shouting from the rooftops “iTunes, iTunes, iTunes”. In fact, in the last week, what’s the biggest Pre news? iTunes.

    And trust me. While it makes little sense, if this truly acts like an iPod, Pre users will overwhelmingly use iTunes to purchase music. Why? Not because it’s a better product. Because you can eliminate one, maybe two, steps. I can’t tell you how many Ipod users buy solely from iTunes simply due to ease. And all they are getting out of us one extra drag and drop. Still they buy nothing that isn’t iTunes.

    Face it. Songbird is nice, but nothing manages the library like iTunes. If Pre users can buy within that ecosystem they will. Apple has proof. Millions and millions of iPod users.

  11. Andrew

    Dan – Pre will have a built in app to purchase songs and media from Amazon Music. I suspect that many Pre owners will purchase their music from Amazon or some other sources and then just maintain their catalog with iTunes. A lot of that will depend on how easy it is to interface with Amazon (or others) as compared to the iTunes Store.

  12. Andrew

    It always amazes me how people let their own personal biases get in the way of objective evaluation. Reading these comments and articles are prime examples of this happening! People fall in love with their device, then the manufacturer of their device, and they don’t want anything else to be better unless the same manufacturer comes out with it? Do you see what you guys are doing? Do you see how this makes NO sense whatsoever? You are not able to chose a smart phone objectively because you’re in love with a brand… Apple, RIMM, or Palm. A new device comes out that has better features, yet these people will come up with all kinds of excuses as to why it’s not better. YET…. YET… just watch what happens when their favorite manufacturer catches up and comes out with those same features… oh, it’s pandemonium! These are not sports teams that, in reality, have no impact on our lives whatsoever. These are devices that can greatly impact our lives and picking one solely for a brand name and not objectively comparing features it, well… just plain stupid!

    I’ve seen them from Apple, RIMM, and Palm… but Apple “fanboys” really seem to be the worst when it comes to objective evaluation of competitor’s devices.

    It’s really very sad to me. But that’s part of life, I’m afraid.

  13. Wow. So you want Apple to give up what could be the ultimate victory in the race to dominate music (and maybe movie) distribution to protect the iPod division?

    In what world would it be bad for Apple if every Pre owner bought their tunes from Apple? Hell, I’m betting Apple is loving this. Who’s next? Android iTunes access? Blackberry? Personally, I don’t like it. Too much influence for Apple in the distribution game here. If everyone gains iTunes access. iTunes is not the best place to get high quality music or movies and if they continue to dominate they will be less inclined to improve it. And more and more of their product line will become like the Atv, which is nothing more than an access point to the iTunes store.

    Still, for Apple, nothing could be better than for every smartphone user to be buying their media from iTunes. And with built in and well advertised access to iTunes, people will be more inclined to take the easy route with iTunes rather than buying from a possibly better source and have to perform the extra step of importing.

    However, a counterpoint to my first point could be if iTunes became The Internet Media Store for all, maybe the devices would then become all about the interface. I bet Apple likes it’s chances there.

    Either way, this is win-win for Apple. And a big giant lose-lose for other online distribution services, not to mention production studios.

  14. Gazoobee

    Another great article from Tom with actual research and thought put into it. So different from other articles on this blog. :-)

    I think that Palm has done this because if they asked first, Apple might say no but this way, it’s up to Apple to purposely and publicly stop Palm from doing this.

    I think that Palm is betting that the bad PR from closing down access (if Apple choses to do that), will be enough to force Apple’s hand into allowing them to sync. With all the recent stuff in the news about open-ness, and with most observers being under the impression that Apple is a “closed shop” (even though it’s almost the opposite of that), Apple would almost certainly be under pressure not to block Palm.

    It’s a way of getting high profile support for linking to iTunes by pressuring Apple with the media and it’s own words on open-ness. Nasty, but rather brilliant. It’s almost the kind of thing Steve Jobs would do.

  15. Great article… right…
    Sure, Apple should close the access to iTunes, because God forbid Apple could have some competition…
    You guys are just killing me, you are probably the only website in the entire net that is against competition in the market. You’d buy apples from Apple if they had the logo embroiled in them and sold for 10x the price of normal apples.


  16. Who Cares

    PS: You’re such a whiner Tom. You’re mad because the Pre is being seen as an iPod. Whoopty doo. I guess you’re upset that someone else might have what you got?

    Kinda like asking someone “hey where did you get those shoes” and they reply “I’m not telling you, I want to be the only one with them”.

    That’s kinda what you sound like….grow up.

    “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.” Jealous jealous jealous.

  17. Who Cares

    The bigger question is WHO THE HELL CARES ABOUT iTunes!? I have an iPhone now, and I plan on getting a Palm Pre. Frankly, I can’t stand iTunes, it’s a bloated piece of sh—. I think it was completely arrogant of Apple to require us to even use iTunes to sync the iPhone. As an IT manager I remember when we banned things like iTunes because it wasn’t a business application. It was just another plot from Apple to make more money. You know kinda like:

    Not having a replaceable battery. But hey send it to Apple and they’ll replace it for a fee.

    No 3.5mm headphone jack.

    No ability to have accidental insurance (like every other phone on every other network in the United States). But hey, if you break your Phone we’ll just charge you what you originally paid for it or the real deal full price to replace it.

    Oh you can’t use 3G to stream SlingPlayer even though your iPhone plan requires you to sign up with specific data plans that cost more than average data plans.

    I LOOOOOVE my iPhone. No doubt. But I also hate many things about it. And owning an iPhone reminds me why I never bought a Mac. Entirely too proprietary. And Apple has WAY too much control.

    Remember when the Apple said, no third party apps. Why because they didn’t want anyone touching their OS baby.

    Then it was, OK OK web apps only.

    That wasn’t floating then it was OK SDK but no background apps because it kills battery life. And then original iPhone was 2G because according to Apple 3G eats battery life.

    And how about push notifications? What a joke. All of our data has to be sent to Apple to alert you to a new instant message. How ridiculous is that? If your iPhone doesn’t have the battery to support background apps how about improving upon that instead of making restrictions and excuses.

    What kind of BS is that? How about letting th consumer decide whether they want to risk a few battery bars for multitasking or 3G.

    Then the Slingplayer restriction. Which is a non-issue since my phone is jailbroken. But why do we have to go through so much shi—.

    Apple needs competition, I’ve been waiting for a true iPhone competitor and I think Palm Pre just might have it. To hell with iTunes I’d much rather drag and drop my files to the phone anyway and uninstall iTunes.

    Competition is good. I think what we have here is a bunch of yes I’m going to say it…Apple Fan Boys. Especially the blogger who practically stole the entire article from another website I read it on 3 days ago.

  18. Andrew

    As far as I’m concerned, it all comes down to a matter of whether or not it’s a copyright or patent infringement. If it is, then Apple has every right to take the appropriate action. If it’s not, Palm has every right to make their product as marketable as possible. Who cares if Palm was invited? This is a capitalistic society and every company in the extremely competitive smart phone industry must use all innovative idea they can to raise their chances of success as much as possible. Just as Apple used their genius marketing tactics to give the impression that Apple was the innovator of many features that have actually been around years on other platforms, Palm should be able use whatever means they have available. Is it ethical? I think we people could argue for days about questionable ethical decisions with both companies. If nothing else, I think it’s an extremely interesting case study.

  19. And @jdq, I reckon you are right, over 90% of Pre users will be using Windows. Palm stated at D7 when they announced this feature that it was for both Mac and Windows.

  20. Palm 100% has permission. Rubenstein dodging the question, and McNamee jumping in was just a clever way of drumming up press/hype (as the very existence of this article proves). There is no way Palm would use Rubenstein’s inside knowledge or any other trickery to provide this syncing functionality, because they know full well that Apple can block it in an instant (and probably sue Rubenstein for imparting confidential information). The iTunes sync is an official feature, it is already listed on the official features list at, and they are not about to have it taken away from them. They have a deal with Apple and are simply enjoying the press that comes from not saying so (or they have some very sound legal advice from somewhere to say its ok………..)
    Good on them.

  21. Great article.
    About the subject itself, I think that is no harm for Apple. Being able to sync a gadget with their iTunes means alot more people would use it > more money from the sellings of music and other media. Also dont think iTunes is so loved that someone would dumb a nice gadget and buy something from Apple just to use iTunes.
    Also, dont think is something wrong that the Pre can use iTunes, only if there are some terms of use/something written that says iTunes should be used only with Apple products. There is something like that out there?
    I think the Palms made a good job with this “trick”, and as I see on the net, just by syncing with iTunes, there have been made alot of buzz and advertising about the allmighty iTunes usable Palm Pre!

  22. Waaaaahhhhh! Waaaaahhhhh! Mommie, those big boys at Palm aren’t playing right! Waaaaaahhhh!

    You people are pathetic. Competition is good, live with it.

  23. It is not illegal to be a monopoly. It is illegal to use one’s monopoly in one area to stifle competition in another area. This is what Microsoft got in trouble for (using its Windows monopoly to prevent Web Browser competition).

  24. Sebastien A.

    It may also be that apple is opening the iTunes platform to non-apple hardware, and palm got in first but cannot talk about it

  25. I think the “M” word is a pretty good justification for this; in the music space, Apple IS a monopoly, and as such, they ought to behave differently. I’ve no doubt you remember Microsoft getting knocked down for monopolistic practices, yes? I don’t know your view on that, but I’m going to guess that you’re cool with them being forced to open their doors a bit.

    Similary, if Apple is in a position of market dominance, they ought to be letting anyone connect to the iTunes client. Otherwise they’re effectively shutting down other devices, and making you buy more of their products in order to fully enjoy what you buy from the iTunes store, without giving you another option. That isn’t good (for the industry OR the customers).

  26. I was under the impression that there are lots of third-party drivers available to make iTunes support non-iPod mp3 devices, and that Palm simply built one of these into the Pre. I could be wrong, of course. Just something I thought I picked up on the interwebs.

  27. One thing to note about the old iTunes API, it only works on OS X. I would figure the majority (all?) Pre owners will be Windows users. However, I do agree. Apple should block the Pre, but do it on Pre launch day. That will show ’em. :)