Friday, July 24, 2009

About open sync, the Pre and iTunes

Oohh, this is hitting so close to home that I have to comment. I am referring to the battle between Palm and Apple around iTunes. A battle of open mobile sync (or something like that ;-)

Let me give a recap, for those in the dark (mostly in Europe, where the Pre has not started shipping yet). The Palm Pre supported sync with iTunes, when it was launched. Palm made the Pre "look like" an iPod to iTunes, and iTunes was happily syncing with it. A few days ago, Apple released an update of iTunes (8.2.1) shutting down the Pre. Official word from Apple: "Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players". Ok, but you shut them out, that's different ;-)

Yesterday, Palm announced WebOS 1.1 and in the official Palm blog they wrote "Oh, and one more thing: Palm webOS 1.1 re-enables Palm media sync".

The "Oh, and one more thing" is obviously a jab at Steve Jobs... You may debate whether the comment was funny or not, but the clear message is "bring it on Apple, we are here to fight". It is getting interesting...

The beauty of the Palm update is that is OTA (over-the-air), so everyone is going to get it and everything will return to work magically.

The bad for Apple is that I have a feeling they have little ground to sue Palm. When you spend some time reading material about reverse engineering, you see it is clearly a black art. Palm is not damaging Apple software, they have not done anything bad or stole any code, it is "just" that the Pre is claiming to be an iPod... Borderline, but still within limits.

What changed in WebOS 1.1? In the previous version, the Pre was claiming to iTunes to be an iPod built by Palm. That is what Apple shut down in 8.2.1 (anything claiming not to be built by Apple). Now the Pre is saying it is an iPod built by Apple ;-) Uuuhhh, very very close to the line here. However, apparently the device still presents the root USB node (IOUSBDevice) as a Palm Pre. Therefore, Apple could shut them down with 8.2.3 in a whiff.

Will Apple shut the Pre down? I believe so. Palm left the door open to be shut by not changing the root USB node and they are happy to make Apple look like the bad guys. It is going to be a cat and mouse game for a while. Apple has the right to do whatever they want with their product. Unless someone forces them to an open sync protocol.

Who could do it? The Europeans, of course. Wait until the Pre ships in Europe. One second after Apple shuts down the door, Palm will file a claim with the European Commission. And they will win (ooh, another good reason to love Europe ;-)

Look at Palm last comment: they are just getting ready for it, starting with some standard body...
Palm believes that openness and interoperability offer better experiences for users by allowing them the freedom to use the content they own without interference across devices and services, so on behalf of consumers, we have notified the USB Implementers Forum of what we believe is improper use of the Vendor ID number by another member.
Open protocol and open sync is the way to go, I have no doubts about it. It will happen no matter what. All the forces in the market are pushing towards it. There is no way back from open.

iTunes is a great product and closing it to the outside world to protect the iPhone is not going to work. Eventually, Apple will have to suck it up and accept that the data must move freely (BTW, it is MY MUSIC...). One day, they might even switch to an open protocol, such as SyncML. It is usually the first step before open source comes in. At that point, Apple will become an unbeatable force in the market. For now, they just like to play the big fat cat.

And, as usual, I am rooting for the mouse (who BTW is selling above my expectations, at 350,000 devices). Stay iTuned, it is going to be a fun ride.