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Future iTunes versions could block the Pre, but why?

Robert Palmer

Yesterday, Megan noted a Fortune story saying that iTunes syncs flawlessly with the new Palm Pre. This, of course, got the water-cooler talk bubbling: "How did Palm pull it off? Will Apple allow this to happen?"

Turns out they already have. A tech note on Apple's website notes the two dozen or so third-party players that iTunes (for Mac OS X, at least) is compatible with, including Rio and Creative Labs Nomad MP3 players. True, many of the models listed predate the iPod, and the tech note itself was last updated a little less than a year ago. But third-party device compatibility with iTunes isn't without precedent.

Daring Fireball's John Gruber pointed to a story by Jon Lech Johansen that says Apple may block iTunes access to the Pre in a future update; Gruber himself said he "wouldn't be surprised if they did." I'm not so sure.

First, let's look at how it works. According to Johansen, a unique USB device ID allows iTunes to recognize MP3 players (including iPods) that it's compatible with. Johansen speculates that Palm is using one of these IDs when communicating with iTunes. If it's an iPod's unique ID, then it will work with iTunes for Windows, too; this is an important litmus test and we don't know the results yet.

I can understand Apple might not cotton to a Palm Pre specifically masquerading as an iPod USB device. Given that, allowing the Pre to freely communicate with iTunes isn't necessarily bad business sense, presuming Palm implements the functionality in a forthright manner (like other third-party MP3 players that iTunes already supports).

Why limit access to the Pre, aside from pure spite? If someone already uses iTunes, chances are they have some quantity of DRM-free iTunes Plus music on their computer. There's no technical reason why the music shouldn't be easily playable on the Pre. One of the upshots of removing DRM in the iTunes store is to facilitate device interoperability. Allow non-Apple devices to play iTunes music, and suddenly Apple has customers it didn't have before.

If Apple chooses to cut off just the Pre, and Palm is following the rules, Apple is unnecessarily cutting a stream of revenue. That's something I don't see Apple doing lightly.

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