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Apple Smacks Palm, and Palm's Hollow Plea

Wednesday, 15 Jul 2009 | 4:20 PM ET

It was a just a matter of time.

When the Palm Pre was unveiled, and in subsequent announcements from Palm about its nifty new smart phone, one of the key selling points was its seamless integration and synchronization with Apple's iTunes , online music and video software.

Which always struck me as odd.

Consider: Apple owns iTunes, part of an incredibly compelling hardware and software ecosystem (unless of course you're in France where officials have complained that "incredibly compelling ecosystems" is another way of saying unfair monopoly that's unfair to users even though Apple has sold tens of millions of iPods and iPhones and billions of songs.)

Yet Palm's own web site proclaims users can use the Palm media sync feature to transfer your DRM-free iTunes music, videos and photos to your Pre. A footnote says the Pre is compatible with iTunes v8.2, though "compatibility with future versions not guaranteed." True enough as we're learning today.

Why? Because Apple released its newest version of its iTunes software, 8.2.1, and guess what? That syncing feature that lets Palm's Pre hook up with iTunes has been disabled. Something Apple threatened it would do as soon as Palm began chirping about its iTunes sync compatibility.

Look, I'm all in favor of consumer freedom and choice, but not at the expense of the innovators who bring new technology to the market, and when that freedom affects their ability to control their innovations. A wink wink and a nod nod when it comes to scoring iTunes on a non-Apple device might be one thing, but geez, Palm's been loudly banging a drum that Pre users can backdoor their way into iTunes.

Spokesperson Lynn Fox told the Wall Street Journal, "If Apple chooses to disable media sync in iTunes, it will be a direct blow to their users who will be deprived of a seamless synchronization experience." On her Twitter, she reiterates: "You heard me. Direct blow."

But is it? Which users? iTunes users who left their Apple hardware for the Pre? I'm still trying to find market research about iPhone users who have made the switch from Apple hardware to Palm. Remember it was Palm's lead investor Roger McNamee who famously claimed, and then Palm more famously retracted, that "not one of those (first iPhone users) will still be using an iPhone" once the Palm Pre was released. My sense is that most iTunes users are iPhone and iPod users. And if they're like me, and need a keyboard, they're Research in Motion Blackberry users and also keep an iPod Touch handy.

I called Palm for some clarification about all this. Fox sent me an email reminding me that "we aren’t using iTunes, we’re syncing a user’s non-DRM content from their iTunes account to the music player (which is not iTunes) on their Pre." But that doesn't address the issue of using someone else's technology as a selling point for you own.

Which leads me back to my original question: How can Palm honestly believe it could co-opt another company's technology and use it as a selling point for its own product? Exploiting another's security loophole and tricking the software into believing your product is really one of theirs is a poor substitute for "innovation." The underlying message seems to be, we don't have our own way of getting music onto our multimedia device, so we'll just take someone else's. And yet when the first company takes action against the second, Palm's response is to attack the move as "anti-consumer." Huh?

Apple spokeswoman Natalie Kerris released this statement: "iTunes 8.2.1 is a free software update that provides a number of important bug fixes. It also disables devices falsely pretending to be iPods, including the Palm Pre. As we've said before, newer versions of Apple's iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with unsupported digital media players."

If you don't like it, don't use iTunes. Don't buy an iPhone. Or an iPod. Don't shop at Apple. Don't patronize the company. What? Yeah, didn't think so.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com

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