Third-party iTunes Syncing: It’s Not Just About Palm


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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