Editorial: Palm, iTunes, and the ties that don't bind

So I was out of town last week when Apple and Palm got into it over the Pre syncing with iTunes, and the more I think about it, the more ridiculous the situation has become. If you'll remember, the Pre shipped with a hack that allowed it to appear as an iPod, which was inevitably blocked by Apple, and Palm's latest move was to spoof the Pre's USB Vendor ID to make it look like an Apple product while simultaneously complaining to the USB Implementor's Forum that Apple improperly uses the field. Yeah, it's messy, and the end result is that while Palm is getting a lot of attention for jabbing at Apple, Pre owners are being left with a jury-rigged hack of a solution that will almost certainly be blocked by the next iTunes update -- and Palm's official advice is that you should hold off on updating iTunes to ensure Pre compatibility.

Let's just say it: this is insane.

It's hard to think of a single good reason for Palm to implement iTunes syncing in webOS by spoofing the iPod, and then to play this cat-and-mouse game of hacks and workarounds with Apple. Palm's actions makes it seem like there are no other ways for a device to interact with iTunes, and the company's outraged response to Apple blocking the Pre make it seem like Apple is wrong for forbidding non-iPod devices from masquerading as iPods. But that's simply not reality, and it's not fair to Palm's customers to have to sit through a proxy war with devices that may or may not work tomorrow because Palm refuses to do what so many other companies have managed to do and simply integrate with iTunes properly.

That's right -- integrate with iTunes. Although conventional wisdom would have you believe that Apple's hell-bent on forcing the iTunes-iPod-iPhone ecosystem down your throat, it's really quite easy to use all kinds of other software and hardware with iTunes. Seriously. For example, I use a piece of software called Connect360 almost daily, which instantly makes all my iTunes playlists and media available to my Xbox 360 over the local network. Funny how Apple hasn't blocked that in the three years it's been out. I also routinely use Serato Scratch Live, which allows me to DJ directly from my iTunes library and playlists within its interface without having to do anything except check a box -- Traktor Pro does the same thing. As for devices, Salling Media Sync and BlackBerry Media Sync both sync music from iTunes to my array of portables without any fuss -- or endless petty bickering with Apple. Sure, there are some interesting antitrust questions that arise anytime any single company dominates a market as thoroughly as Apple dominates digital music, but the primary consideration is whether or not two products are wrongfully tied together, and it's hard to make that case for iTunes -- for the most part the music is DRM-free and the library is straight folders and XML files, so there's nothing keeping anyone out or forcing you to use an iPod. I'm not saying we shouldn't scrutinize Apple's actions closely -- Steve and the gang certainly manage to do a lot of things seriously wrong -- but when it comes to syncing devices and software with iTunes there's almost nothing to even consider, since it's so easy.

But that's not how Palm sees it, for some reason, and the more I think about it the more it seems like it's purely a publicity stunt. Why else would Palm use its limited resources to fight this battle and deliver an inconsistent experience for its customers when it could just code a proper sync client for the Pre instead? Why not license excellent software like The Missing Sync or DoubleTwist instead of paying lawyers and PR people to wring their hands on Twitter and in legal documents? It's totally mysterious. Roger McNamee might swear up and down that Palm's not competing with Apple, but Apple's sure as hell competing with Palm, and engineering a crucial feature to be wholly reliant on Cupertino's goodwill when vastly better options exist simply doesn't make sense.

Yes, it would be nice if Apple made it even easier for third-party devices to sync with iTunes -- it doesn't make me totally comfortable that the world's largest music retailer has created a system that appears to be completely closed to the average consumer, even if it's not. Before the iPod existed iTunes actually directly supported a small list of third-party players, and while no one expects Apple to expend resources on supporting non-iPod devices, I'd love to see the company acknowledge the wide variety of devices that can sync with iTunes using additional software -- "You can use your BlackBerry or Pre with iTunes, but the best experience is on an iPhone" is a pretty reasonable message to send, and it would go a long way towards softening the proprietary image that persists even though the store is now DRM-free. I'm not holding my breath, though -- and considering the amount of ex-Apple talent at Palm that's more than capable of building a top-notch iTunes sync client, I don't think Palm's customers should be forced to wait either.