Users are suffering as Apple plays cat-and-mouse with protocols, say analysts
Palm could face legal repercussions after reconnecting its Pre phone to Apple’s iTunes, but the stakes are high. Users are losing out, and Apple could end up having to open up to all competitors, according to analysts.
WebOS 1.1, released last week, is designed to boost the Pre’s enterprise credibility, but it also also reconnected the Pre to iTunes, getting round an update to the Apple software earlier in July, which blocked devices like the Pre which “pretend” to be an iPhone in order to connect.
The update is the latest move in the digital cat-and-mouse game between Palm’s touch-screen Pre smartphone, sue to arrive in the UK before Christmas, and Apple’s iTunes digital media player. Palm updated the operating system for the Pre. Palm webOS 1.1, to reconnect Pre users to Version 8.2.1 of Apple’s iTunes application.
On 15 July, Apple updated iTunes, and the newest version prevented the Palm Pre from syncing with Apple’s proprietary music app. At the time, Palm spokeswoman Leslie Letts called Apple’s move a “direct blow to their users, who will be deprived of a seamless synchronisation experience.” Letts also recommended in lieu of the seamless iTunes sync, Pre owners could use an older version of iTunes, use a USB cable to transfer music from a computer to the Pre and look to other third-party music applications.
In May, early tests of the Palm Pre made it known that Palm’s upcoming Pre WebOS will include an application called Palm Media Sync, which will synchronise with iTunes and allow users to transfer DRM-free music, photos and video onto the Pre. Jon Rubinstein, executive chairman of Palm and a former Apple employee, said at the time the application was designed “to be an easy and elegant way” for users to take content and put it on the Pre.
Other features of the Palm Pre that attracted comment were its use of a wireless charger.
Months before, during a Jan. 21 earnings call, Apple COO Tim Cook, declining to name Palm specifically, said, “We will not stand for having our IP ripped off, and we’ll use whatever weapons that we have at our disposal.”
Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies, said the speed with which Palm was able to reconnect itself to Apple is noteworthy, though he points out Palm employs a number of former Apple people.
“One of the differences with Palm is [because] it’s populated with so many former Apple people, they may know the architecture better,” he said. “There may be all sorts of relationships there. They may have emotions about being cut out of the action at Apple. It’s not really sound business to approach it that way, but this business allows emotions to get swayed.”
Kay said that fight for control is an ongoing battle between Apple and the rest of its ecosystem, which is ultimately not to the benefit of end users. “The competitor has to do another twist to meet [Apple’s block], and Apple twists after that — after a while the software isn’t operating very well, for business reasons, essentially,” he said. “It may simply be about the iPod world is so attractive, that to be a viable handset Pre has to have access to that world. And I think that’s correct.”
With iTunes, Apple has created a nexus of power that’s extremely difficult to dislodge, Kay points out. “Basically Apple’s in the business of selling high-margin hardware — it’s a great business,” he said. “What I would say is they escalate slowly — maybe they send a cease and desist letter.”
Kay said if Apple moves too fast and opens with a lawsuit and doesn’t win, it would create a precedent for opening its platforms. “That would be the worst thing that could happen,” he said. “I would guess that like any good lawyer, their attorney will tell them to escalate a bit at a time and gradually raise the stakes. They’re not going to give up easily, but would they go another round of cat-and-mouse? Probably not.”