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Palm slams Apple, hoodwinks iTunes

How the Pre apes an iPod

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Palm has filed a complaint with an industry group that monitors USB standards, claiming that Apple is "hampering competition" by locking the Palm Pre out of iTunes. The same complaint also reveals details of how the Pre tricks iTunes into thinking it's an iPod.

At issue is the tussle between Apple and Palm over the Palm Pre's ability to seamlessly connect to Apple's iTunes software to allow for iPod-like music transfer.

And when we say "iPod-like," we most definitely mean iPod-like. When connected to a version of iTunes before Apple evicted the Pre in its iTunes 8.2.1 update of July 15, the Pre functioned with iTunes exactly as if it were iPod - up to and including iPod device art appearing in the iTunes' Summary pane.

After that update, the Pre no longer appeared to iTunes as an iPod. But Palm didn't give up.

Word leaked out in Tuesday's New York Times that Palm sent a letter to the USB Implementers Forum, an industry group managing that interconnect standard, on June 22nd detailing their objections to Apple's 8.2.1 update.

When The Reg asked Palm about the NYT's report, a company spokesperson pointed us to a copy of the letter that the NYT had obtained (PDF), but declined to comment further.

The technical lynchpin behind the controversy is one of the Standard Device Descriptors described in the 622-page Universal Serial Bus Specification document (PDF ZIP). The descriptors, taken together, give a host device info about the USB device that's being attached to it.

One field in that set of descriptors is idVendor, which contains the vendor's ID as assigned by the USB Implementers Forum. Palm's letter to the USB-IF claims that Apple's iTunes 8.2.1 update checks that field to see if the vendor ID matches Apple's. If it doesn't, iTunes blocks access.

Palm wasn't happy with that. It was so unhappy, in fact, that the letter informed the USB-IF that "In response, Palm will shortly issue an update of its webOS operating system that uses Apple's USB Vendor ID number for the sole purpose of restoring the Palm media sync functionality."

Which it did on July 23rd.

Our calls and emails to the USB-IF to gain more information found the Forum to be less than helpful. Their spokesman merely told us that the Forum "declines to comment on this at this time," not even to confirm or deny the existence of the letter.

The Universal Serial Bus Specification, however, specifically states that: "The standard descriptors defined in this specification may only be modified or extended by revision of the Universal Serial Bus Specification." And seeing as how the idVendor is provided by the USB-IF, Palm may have felt that it had no choice but to inform the Forum that it was planning to pretend it was Apple in order to fool iTunes.

This dance could continue for a while, as there are more fields in which Apple and Palm can play: for example, idProduct is the product ID as assigned by the manufacturer, iManufacturer is a string describing the manufacturer, iProduct is a string describing the product; and the contents of iSerialNumber we'll assume you can guess on your own.

Apple might switch its blockage technique to sniff out any or all of those fields, then Palm might issue an update that thwarts that blockage, and the dance would continue.

As one market-research analyst told the NYT: "This is a classic technology cat-and-mouse game. It often comes down to which side tires first."

Palm's letter contends that using idVendor to lock out competing music players wasn't what the USB specification working group intended when it developed the Vendor ID. According to Palm, the USB standard is all about interoperability.

"Interoperability is central to any standard-setting organization," the letter reads, "because, without widespread interoperability, many of the benefits of standardized (as opposed to proprietary) technologies are lost."

And so in order to preserve this sacred interoperability, Palm contends that it has the right to use Apple's Vendor ID to fool iTunes into thinking the Pre is an iPod.

Frankly, that doesn't seem fair to us. Palm certainly has the right to develop its own media-syncing software, and it certainly has the right to enter into licensing agreements with other music-vending online entities - even with Apple, if its negotiating skills are superhuman.

Fat chance with that last option now.

From where we sit, however, Palm doesn't have the right to tweak its iPhone competitor to make it pretend to be something it's not.

And the USB Implementers Forum won't say when they'll rule on this case. We think they simply wish it would go away. ®

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