Palm: Insane, or Batshit Insane?

There has always been a hint of mental illness at Palm. From their habit of breaking third party application compatibility with each hardware release, to treating expandable storage in such an incomprehensible way that I don’t think that anyone ever really figured out how it worked, to the bizarre chain of buyouts, mergers and acquisitions that make Palm’s ownership history look more complicated than the Habsburg family tree; it’s always been apparent to outside observers that there has to be something in the water over at Palm HQ. But none of Palm’s previous shenanigans holds a candle to the current whacky antics that they are displaying over the Palm Preand its Media Sync functionality.

For the uninformed: when Palm first announced the Pre, one of its highly promoted features was Media Sync. Which provided the ability for the Pre to appear as an iPod with Apple’s iTunes software. Before the first units shipped there was wild speculation regarding this feature. Was Palm working with Apple to enable this? If not, how would Apple respond?

As it turns out, Apple wasn’t working with Palm on the Media Sync feature. What was happening was that Palm was utilizing a very simple hack of the USB 2.0 specification that allowed the Pre to lie to the operating system and claim to be an iPod. All breathless claims of “monopoly” and “anticompetitive practices” aside, Apple quickly responded with a Knowledge Base article which can be tidily summed up as saying, “Don’t fuck with us. assholes.” Apple then, slightly less quickly released an update to iTunes which patched at least part of the hack that Palm was using.

Palm, with all the obnoxious tenacity of the nerdy sidekick in a John Hughes movie who can’t get it though their head that they are never, ever going to get any of that delicious Molly Ringwald poontang, released an update to the Pre’s WebOS that took the USB hack one step further. Normally at this point we’d be able to say, “ball’s in your court Apple,” and get to the profanity, but in an act of hubris of Sophoclean proportions Palm has announced that they’ve reported Apple to the USB Implementers Forum complaining that Apple is hindering interoperability. Also Palm is alleging that Apple won’t share their GI Joe figures, and that Steve Jobs keeps poking Jon Rubenstein when mommy isn’t looking.

So, now you have the background and I can get to the part of this crap that I actually enjoy.

What in the everlasting fuck is Palm thinking here? First off, complaining to the USB Implementors Forum is possibly the most whiney and ineffectual act that I have ever seen a corporation make. At the very best all that could happen is that Apple will have to remove the USB 2.0 logo from their packaging. At the very worst the USB Implementors Forum can decide that it’s Palm that’s violating the specification (hint: they are) and have them pull the USB logo. No, all this is merely posturing for the media.

Secondly, Apple has all the cards here. Apple controls iTunes and, should they choose to, they can constantly stay one step ahead of Palm. Given enough time and hardware revisions to the iPod and iPhone hardware lines, Apple can lock things down so tight that it would take DMCA violating levels of hackery to overcome. Barring that, Apple could take the simple way out and just sue Palm into oblivion. In my completely unqualified legal opinion Apple could make a decent case of trademark infringement by way of brand dilution.

The truly insane aspect of this is that all of this is completely unnecessary. Vast numbers of people, particularly Windows users, hate iTunes. I would hazard a guess that there are probably more people looking for a solution to manage their iPhones and iPods without iTunes than there are actual Pre users. And it isn’t like there aren’t legitimate ways to get content managed from within iTunes into a non-Apple device. Apple provides an iTunes Library file in XML format specifically for this. Or, let’s get really whacky here. Palm could partner with a non-iTunes provider. I’d imagine that Amazon might be receptive to overtures.

The real tragedy in all this is that it’s only the Palm Pre users who are going to suffer here. By attempting to piggy back on iTunes’ success Palm is consigning their users to become perpetual second class citizens. Always playing catchup with iTunes. Unfortunately, if this continues, Palm may very well be forced to learn a lesson that Apple learned long ago. When users of your product are hampered by issues with a thirdparty service, they rarely are willing to accept that as an excuse. The majority of Palm Pre users will not ask, “why is iTunes broken?” They will ask, “why is my Pre broken?” My advice to Palm, look at the grief that AT&T has caused Apple, and they are legitimate partners. Do you really want to be put in that position?