Palm Pre’s iTune Sync: Destined for Oblivion?

By  |  Tuesday, June 2, 2009 at 10:05 am

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape…
You don’t spit into the wind…
You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger…
And you don’t use clever workarounds or hacks to do things with Apple products which Apple doesn’t want you to do, because Apple will surely release an update which defeats your clever workaround or hack.

–Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” (minor revision by Harry)  

Palm PreAmong the many interesting features of Palm’s almost-here Pre smartphone is Media Sync, which lets it sync with iTunes on a Windows PC or Mac as if it were an iPod or iPhone. Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and Jon Lech Johsnsen (the uberhacker who reverse-engineered DVD encryption and Apple FairPlay DRM) have been blogging about the new feature. I’m intrigued by their take, and puzzled (so far) by what Palm is up to here.

I think that both John and Jon’s analysis is based on this video from last week’s D conference, in which Palm’s Jon Rubenstein shows the  iTunes synching feature. e specifies that it involves no additional software, and the synching is clearly happening within iTunes, which refers to the Pre as an iPod. Jon (Lech Johansen, not Rubenstein) says that the Pre must be essentially pretending to be some specific iPod model and thereby tricking iTunes into doing the sync, and John agrees, saying it “can’t be legit.”

This analysis is all well-informed and sensible. It’s possible, of course, that it’s wrong–maybe Rubenstein mispoke when he said no additional softwaere was involved, for instance. But for the moment, the Gruber/Johansen take on this is at the very least the most likely scenario.

And if it’s indeed what’s going on, it’s tough to figure out what’s going on in Palm’s head. Reasonable people can debate about whether there’s anything underhanded about one company’s device masquerading as another company’s device to gain access to the second company’s software. Reasonable people can debate about whether Apple has any moral responsibility to permit third-party hardware manufacturers to sync their devices  with iTunes. But it’s all moot: If Apple doesn’t like the Pre’s approach to iTunes synching, and there’s a technical  way for it to stop it, it will, in an upcoming iTunes update. History pretty much proves that. And considering that, it seems pointlessly risky for Palm to do what John and Jon think it’s done: There’s a high chance that anyone who buys a Pre because of this feature will end up disappointed when Apple circumvents it.

(Wild card: Maybe Palm is positive there’s no technical way for Apple to respond to what it’s done. I’m not a USB engineer, but this scenario seems unlikely.)

The odd thing is, it’s possible to write software that peeks int iTunes’ music library and syncs songs back and forth in a way that works quite well: When I owned a Windows Mobile phone, I used The Missing Sync to sync it with iTunes. But such techniques involve the installation of software on a computer, and it’s not iTunes that’s doing the synching. You’re synching with iTunes, not via iTunes. If Palm did this, there’d be no controversy and little chance of Apple striking back, and the Pre would have a neat and useful feature.

Based on the D demo, though, whatever the Pre is doing, it’s something other than that. It’ll be fascinating to get more details once the phone comes out on Saturday, and to see how Apple responds.


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Steven Fisher Says:

    It’s interesting there’s been so much assumption that Apple will respond. Palm isn’t wrapping their own songs in Fair Play, and isn’t bypassing Fair Play on store tracks. Before iTunes Plus, sure, but I’m not sure why Apple would bother anymore.

  2. tbman Says:

    You would think that if they use a unique ipod identifier for each Pre it will take a while for an actual fix to come through.

  3. Chip Says:

    I think John Gruber is spot-on: there is no way Apple is going to let a non-iPod to show up in iTunes as “iPod”

    Still, I don’t think it’s too farfetched that Palm may have licensed some technology from Apple to do this syncing.

    I hope this is not a big deal for either company.

  4. derbbre Says:

    Why is Palm interested in using iTunes, anyway? Unless they trick iTunes into syncing ALL of the phone’s features – contacts, photos, calendars, apps(?!) – as iTunes does with iPhone/iPod, there’s no real value in using iTunes for Pre sync. The Apple / iPhone feature that SO many manufacturers miss is the seamless integration. I use iTunes, iCal, Address Book, and Mail, and it all just syncs.

    I was a Palm user for many years, and HotSync was a piece of junk: constantly messing up my calendar evens, never really figuring out how to sync in both directions. Absolute junk. Palm should worry less about using iTunes, and just focus on making their own software work.

  5. JD Says:

    iTunes apparently has a 70%+ market share. Breaking Palm’s integration is anticompetitive. Antitrust law frowns on monopolists acting in anticompetitive ways. The DoJ has a bigger legal budget than Apple.

    Palm isn’t counting on Apple’s goodwill to maintain the sync–they’re counting on Apple’s lawyers to maintain the sync.

  6. Jason Says:

    Or maybe, Palm and Apple have a MoI (Memorandum of Understanding) – or “gentlemens agreement” – to allow the sync without fuss or retribution? Tag team together and rip apart the Blackberry and upcoming Windows Mobile phones. Also remember that a lot of people now with Palm and who worked on/with the Pre are ex-Apple employee’s so there could be some leveraging of existing relationships going on.

    Storm in a tea-cup if you ask me. Move on, nothing to see here! ZZZzzzz

  7. Tim Layton Says:

    I have used the Missing Sync with windows mobile and it works very good.

  8. Bill Hair Says:

    It does work, however, FAIRPLAY blocks certain songs from downloading. Out of 800 songs (300 purchased from itunes and the rest ripped from CDs), 100 would not sync and gave the following error message:

    “SONG” was not copied because the FairPlay version is not supported by the iPod “Palm Pre”.

    Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

  9. Bill Says:

    Like Bill Hair, I’m getting the same “SONG NAME” was not copied because the FairPlay version is not supported by the iPod “Palm Pre” for 52 out of my selected (checked to sync) 1,300 songs. I hope there’s a fix for this eventually.


  10. Marty Says:

    So at this time is there any way to download videos from itunes to the palm pre and be able to watch them. I was able to download the videos but the show up as error in reading file, any ideals or hinds

2 Trackbacks For This Post

  1. Palm Goes For the Throat in Apple Tiff | Technologizer Says:

    […] in attempting to break into the walled garden that is iPod/iTunes. That is essentially what the Pre Media Sync does — it tricks iTunes into thinking the Pre is an Apple […]

  2. Palm’s Quixotic Quest Continues | Technologizer Says:

    […] post up on all this that beats up Palm pretty good. He wonders the same thing that I’ve been curious about for months: Why doesn’t Palm, like numerous other companies, write a standalone app to do the syncing? […]