Palm slams Apple, hoodwinks iTunes
How the Pre apes an iPod
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. ®
Still missing it
The Law of the Land, recognising that interoperability is essential for a fair marketplace, says that Ford are not allowed to prevent you from fitting non-Ford accessories to a Ford car.
They don't have to make it easy, but neither can they use the force of law to stop you.
This means that: Any act that would ordinarily be illegal, is allowed -if and only if- it is necessary in order to defeat a manufacturer's unlawful tactics to prevent you from exercising your statutory right to use your own property as you see fit.
The same law that applies to Ford applies to Apple. They can try to hold you to a licence agreement, but any part of that agreement that seeks to diminish your statutory rights has no validity in law.
I think many people are failing to understand the true nature of iTunes dominance because we're all technically astute / power users.
Normal, non-technical users want one way of doing things, and once they learn how it works, they stick to it. If you took your average (non-geek) ipod owner and told them to copy mp3s to their ipod without using itunes, by simply dragging and dropping them into the ipod drive using a file manager, I can absolutely guarantee most wouldn't have a clue how to do it. (Believe me, I'm in tech support, you won't believe how little proficiency most people have with the very basics of using a computer)
The point being, most people who've ever bought an mp3 player bought an ipod (just look at the sales figures.) Because they bought an ipod, they use itunes.
In their minds, you need itunes to get music onto your mp3 player. You could explain that you can do it just as easily with other software, but why should they? They know how to use itunes, why change? In fact, most users are afraid to change.
That wouldn't be a problem, if other hardware devices could use itunes too. But they can't.
So we have a situation where if you want to make an mp3 player, you'll be at a major disadvantage trying to sell it because it won't work with itunes, which is what most people want, no, NEED to use.
So what's so wrong about that? It's Apple's software, they can do what they want.
Well, not according to the DOJ and the EU.
They told MS they couldn't use the fact that most people who buy computers want to use Windows on them to force users to use Internet Explorer as the web browser.
In other words, to spell it out: Just because it's your software, doesn't mean you can do what you like with it. As soon as you're the dominant player in the market (Which ipod / itunes is, by miles), then that becomes illegal because it's anti-competitive.
It wasn't Microsoft's fault they were the dominant desktop OS. They worked hard and spent billions of dollars to achieve that. BUT the DoJ still stopped them from doing what they wanted with their own software.
It's not Apple's fault they're dominant in the mp3 market. They spent billions of dollars to achieve that. BUT... etc.
Legally speaking, in most jurisdictions (including the U.S. and E.U.), a monopoly is not defined as the single seller in a market. Otherwise Microsoft would never have been declared a monopoly; there are other sellers of operating systems, office suites, and web browsers. Being the single seller may be the definition in pure economics terms, but pure economics is much like pure math - it has very little to do with the real world. :) Any country with antitrust laws defines monopoly rather more loosely than 'sole seller in a market', and it's the legal definition we're concerned with here.
There's nothing illegal about having a monopoly, no. _Abusing_ a monopoly (which term also has a precise legal definition) is illegal. That's how Microsoft was prosecuted. I already said there's nothing wrong with Apple's monopoly on hardware music players. At issue is how they've abused that monopoly to artificially improve their standing in the _software_ music player market, in order to disadvantage other producers of both hardware _and_ software music players.
And, uh, fanboy? I don't own anything made by Palm or Apple. My phone's from HTC.