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When Does Palm Stop Acting As Apple Wanna-be?

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When former Apple iPod wunderkind Jon Rubinstein joined Palm as executive chairman - and then assumed the role as CEO, it raised eyebrows.

Some thought the move would help Palm adopt some of the same, successful traits he used to help turn Apple into a mobile powerhouse; that he would take some of his know-how to help Palm craft its own identity.

Nope.

Then there was the thinking that Palm would assert its own unique identity with its highly anticipated smart phone, and purported iPhone killer, the Pre; that maybe Palm had come up with a better mousetrap on both hardware and software and wouldn't need to co-opt Apple's technology in order to sell its own.

Nope.

One of the key selling points of the Palm Pre was its seamless integration with Apple's iTunes; Palm, it seemed, didn't need to develop its own store, or own software, for digital media downloading. Instead, Palm would just take what wasn't its own, and then would claim the practice as "innovation." Who knows, but maybe Mr. Rubinstein still thought he worked at Apple, or that his history there afforded him some rights to a technology that no longer had a connection to.

When Apple fought back last week, effectively cutting off Pre users from that "seamless integration" with iTunes with a new software release, some thought it'd be the end Palm's innovation charade, and that both sides - and all their respective users - could move forward. Maybe, to borrow a phrase from President Obama this morning, the events would be used by Palm as a "teachable moment."

Nope.

Instead, Palm releases a new version of its webOS today, which, among other things, re-establishes the link between the Palm Pre and Apple's iTunes. And in true, copy-cat fashion, Palm heralds the news by borrowing (stealing?) a phrase from Steve Jobs: "Oh, and one more thing: Palm webOS 1.1 re-enables Palm media sync." One more thing. Cute. Cheeky. Silly.

Why Palm is goading Apple is beyond me. I get the argument that all publicity is good publicity and that Palm, as a scrappy upstart is trying to keep this war alive because we all keep writing about it, and it keeps Palm's name, and more importantly the Pre, front and center in the public's eye. But really, do you want to be known as an also-ran? Is that somehow OK?

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For its part, Apple says, "As we've said before, newer versions of iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with unsupported digital media players." In other words, buyer beware. Your Palm Pre works today with iTunes. But heck, who knows what happens Monday?

There are conflicting reports just today about just how popular the Pre truly is. On the one hand, Sprint says it is supply constrained and therefore is having difficulty meeting demand. But Pali analyst Walter Piecyk is tracking a noticeable decline in units sold, with Sprint selling about 25,000 units a week, down from the 30,000 two weeks ago, and the over 50,000 a week sold just after Pre was officially released. Is Sprint fumbling the marketing ball? Is Palm just biding its time before it gets to count Verizon as a partner?

Will the iTunes/Apple row affect Verizon's ability to woo iPhone users to the Pre?

Meantime, RBC's Mike Abramsky says Pre sales momentum has sustained itself.

He checked 25 Sprint stores and estimates 325,000 to 375,000 Pres have sold to date, ahead of his expectations.

He also disputes blog complaints, which have been getting lots of attention, that the Pre is prone to scratches, cracks and other issues, writing this morning "Most buyers appear delighted with their new Pre user experience. Pre satisfaction appears higher than legacy Palm devices (e.g., Treo), affirming improved execution from the "New" Palm, including engineering, manufacturing, quality and process improvements."

So if Palm's got all that going for it, why mix it up in the mud with Apple? Why can't this company just rely on its own, and owned, innovation? As I have posted before, piggybacking on someone else's technology and passing it off as your own, is a poor substitute for "innovation." Poking a lion, (Tiger? Leopard?) with a stick might be interesting to watch, but at some point the poker runs the risk of getting bitten. And all those people standing around watching run that risk too.

Palm's marketing strategy in the past has always been odd. I suppose then it makes some sense that its legal strategy is, too.

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