Syncing music and video to the Palm Pre

Palm Pre video converter
Palm today announced that the Pre will sync seamlessly with iTunes. From the press release on Palm Pre iTunes sync:

Palm media sync is a feature of webOS that synchronizes seamlessly with iTunes, giving you a simple and easy way to transfer DRM-free music, photos and videos to your Palm Pre.(2) Simply connect Pre to your PC or Mac via the USB cable, select “media sync” on the phone, and iTunes will launch on your computer desktop. You can then choose which DRM-free media files to transfer.

Reading about this on blogs I’ve seen two clueless arguments being repeated:

Palm must be doing this in co-operation with Apple.

That must be why in Palm’s demo iTunes says “Syncing iPod” instead of “Syncing Pre” and Palm investor Roger McNamee called Apple a monopolist when Walt Mossberg asked how Apple is going to feel about this.

This is nothing new. RIM and Nokia have been doing iTunes sync for a while.

No, RIM and Nokia have offered their own software which reads the iTunes XML library file and syncs to their devices. That’s nothing like the Palm Pre which identifies itself to a PC as an iPod and syncs with iTunes directly instead of 3rd party software.

The following is worth noting in Palm’s press release:

(2) Compatible with iTunes 8.1.1 on Windows XP/Vista and Mac OS X version 10.3.9-10.5.7

That’s called covering your rear :) Translated from PR-speak we get: “Don’t expect this to necessarily work with iTunes 8.1.2″.

So how is Palm doing this? It’s pretty simple, really. We’ll start with the most basic question that doesn’t even involve the Pre: To a PC, what’s the difference between an iPod and a Kingston memory stick? The iPod has a specific USB Vendor Id that identifies it as being an Apple product and a USB Product Id that identifies it as being a specific iPod model. In addition, the iPod’s filesystem has a specific folder and file structure. Modern iPods also respond to a custom USB command that returns an XML file with information about the device.

So how has Palm most likely enabled the Pre to sync directly with iTunes? By doing the following:

  • When you select “Media Sync” on the Pre, it will switch its USB interface to use Apple’s Vendor Id and the Product Id for a specific iPod model
  • The Pre exposes a filesystem through Mass Storage Class that mimics the structure of an iPod
  • The Pre responds to Apple’s custom USB command and returns XML info about the device

What can Apple do about this? When two parties implement an open standard, there’s usually some differences. In this case, there’s two implementations of a proprietary standard and it’s almost guaranteed that there will be differences. Apple will analyze the Pre and find out what those are. They will then be able to update iTunes to tell a real iPod apart from the “PrePod”.

Oh, and when that happens, be sure to download doubleTwist to sync your music and video to the Palm Pre :)

Follow me on Twitter.

Update: some people are linking to this Apple support article, claiming that’s how the Pre is able to sync with iTunes (of course, these people don’t actually explain the “how” since that would require them to know something about the subject). I didn’t even bother linking to that originally since I thought nobody would be technologically inept enough to use that as an argument: 1) That article has been archived and is no longer updated by Apple, 2) It applies to Mac OS X only, 3) The listed players are over half a decade old, 4) The reason those players were supported was because iTunes included CUSTOM CODE to support those players, 5) The Palm Pre’s iTunes sync capability works without installing any Palm software/plugins, 6) If the Palm Pre was using an iTunes API for 3rd party devices, then iTunes would be identifying the Palm Pre as a Pre, not as an iPod

16 thoughts on “Syncing music and video to the Palm Pre

  1. lqz

    If Apple is smart and I believe that Apple is smart they will cut a deal with Palm.

    People have forgotten that iTunes predates the iPod. There was a time when other digital players could speak to iTunes. It would be foolish for Apple to act like iTunes can only work with the iPod. I think the lack of other players has more to do with the competition thinking they have to take on the iPod and iTunes at the same time.
    Glad to see someone at Palm was smart enough to see that they didn’t need to do the same when it comes to the iPhone. I don’t think anyone at Apple what’s the DOJ* looking over their shoulders. Why be MS and spend a decade second guessing yourself. When all you need to do to win is to put out a better product. There is nothing to be gained by blocking Palm.
    The smart move and the easy move would be to cut a deal with Palm and get a little money. So that is my guess for how this will play out. Because when you think about it if a Pre users are doing everything is iTunes they are not at the Palm’s App store.

    *Apple arguing iTunes can only work with iPods. Would be like MS arguing that Windows needs IE. No one in their right mind would buy it.

  2. James Willcox

    Jon, this is pretty interesting stuff. One other thing the Pre must be able to do is read (and maybe write?) the iTunesDB and ArtworkDB files. Writing the database can be especially difficult, especially when you must remain compatibile with iTunes. I am not sure if there is a music store on the Pre, but that would be one caser where you’d need to write to the database.

    Even if they have it working now, Apple (as you well know) has a history of intentionally breaking stuff for people. The iTunesDB hash is a good example. It will be interesting to see how this plays out for Palm.

  3. Jon Wilson

    If Palm doesn’t have an agreement to do this it would be inadvisable to advertise this “feature”. If consumers went in expecting this functionality and Apple eliminates it via software update then it will be a huge black eye for Palm.

  4. Brian Spaid

    The knee-jerk reaction would be for Apple to cut Palm off, but why? The more convenient it is to use iTunes for all devices, the more likely it will be that those users will download music (and non-DRM content) from Apple and the stronger Apple becomes.

  5. Darcy McGee

    > If Apple is smart and I believe that Apple is smart they will cut a deal with Palm.

    Why would Apple cut a deal with Palm?

    This is roughly the equivalent of me calling Apple and asking for a deal on the next iPod I want to buy. I’m a tiny fish in a very big pond.

    Apple is a shark, and Palm a mere Clown Fish.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I think Jon’s basically correct in what will happen.

  6. archosluvr

    *Way* back in 2001 my brick-sized Archos (but hey, 20 GB!) came with a binary plugin/hack for iTunes that enabled it to sync with Apple’s app. Good to know that everything old is new again.

  7. Ron Seybold

    It’s a good thing that there’s an independent program to sync the Pre with iTunes. “Cut a deal” to use Apple’s format means “cut a check” inside the Palm offices. Palm hasn’t turned a profitable quarter in more than a year. This spring it had to borrow $100 million to make ends meet. All the Pre buzz has at least lifted Palm stock from $3 a share to $10.

    Unless that’s a very small check, or there’s a torrent of Pre revenues on the way, Palm might have to resist a deal. This is what comes from having a loose cannon like Roger McNamee of Elevation Partners sidestep Palm’s chairman and tell the world “our Pre is better than an iPhone.” I’m not sure what else to expect from a fellow who chipped in the $100 million from his investment group. What can the CEO do? McNamee recruited him for the job.

    When you bet the company, like Palm has on the Pre, you get creative in ways in addition to development. Looks like Palm, which had to refute McNamee’s claims about the Pre this spring, will be getting creative about what’s public domain IP and what’s exclusive. It pulls everybody into the mud unless Apple abandons its IP rights. DOJ or not, companies have a right to protect their intellectual property like database formats.

  8. Hamranhansenhansen

    > If Apple is smart and I believe that Apple is smart they will cut a deal with Palm.

    Why does Palm need Apple’s help when RIM and Nokia are doing fine?

    The user’s music is stored in a standard Mac or PC file system, and on the Mac it is even all in their “~/Music/” folder because Apple had the foresight to create that structure at the turn of the century. Further than that, the last state of what iTunes did to the music is in a universally-readable XML file.

    In a number of cases, people have asked Palm executives about various features of the Pre, and they just say “it has what the iPhone has” in many cases, as a shorthand, instead of just listing the actual features of the Pre. The head of their project is a former Apple employee. In their new OS, everything is a Web view, and the Web renderer is Apple WebKit. Now it turns out the Pre actually identifies itself as an Apple product?

    The one thing Apple doesn’t like is cloners. They love to compete with Sony by making thinner notebooks, or with Microsoft by making software that actually works, or with Dell by making computers that don’t suck. Apple was happy to compete with Palm also: when the iPhone shipped, it made the top-of-the-line Palm device look like a pocket calculator.

    Palm cloned the iPhone for Sprint and Verizon. It took 2 years, but they cloned it. The thing even identifies itself as an Apple device. What’s next? The Pre SDK requires XCode?

    > *Way* back in 2001 my brick-sized Archos (but hey, 20 GB!) came with a binary plugin/hack
    > for iTunes that enabled it to sync with Appleā€™s app. Good to know that everything old is new again.

    I don’t think that was a hack. I had a Creative Nomad II in like 2000 that I synced with iTunes. Before that it was SoundJam and synced with music players also. But we’re talking about iTunes for Mac, not Windows. The 2 versions are entirely different in regards to this feature. On the Mac, iTunes has been built-in since Mac OS 9 and has always been able to play MP4/MP3. It’s not necessary to replace the built-in iTunes with something else if you know the user already has those features.

    If you’re talking about Windows, there is nothing there to build on. You don’t know what version of Windows the person who bought your music player brand has, and they don’t have an MP4 player built-in from the factory. You have to provide software as well as hardware if you’re going to get the user up and running with your music player right away on Windows. That is why the music players have always provided their own jukebox software on Windows. Even if you buy a Zune, it does not work with Windows Media Player, but rather comes with its own jukebox software. If Palm wants somebody to blame for this, they should blame their partner, Microsoft, for not making their operating system as friendly to music players as OS X is. If Palm doesn’t want to build their own Windows application to work with their music player, they should license one from someone else, the way a number of players licensed MusicMatch Jukebox.

    We’re all looking at this like the Palm Pre buyer will already have iTunes, because it’s so commonly used, but if I go out and buy a new Palm Pre and a new Dell box and plug them together, I’m not going to see iTunes anywhere unless I go to apple.com and download it. Is that what Palm will tell me to do if I call for tech support? They’ll point me to apple.com?

    We should also remember that the reason iTunes media can play on other devices is because Apple chose to use MP4, which is the ISO standardized version of the QuickTime file format that is to digital media production as Unix is to Web production. Apple could just as easily used the QuickTime format and iTunes would be full of “.mov” files with a proprietary codec that only Apple can use. They would have actually been able to do their video features earlier and with less work. But they did the right thing and did not lock the user’s music and movies away inside an Apple box. Acting like iTunes is a lockbox as an excuse to send your users’ to apple.com to download accessory software instead of making your own is disingenuous. If Palm can’t read MP4 and XML off their user’s hard disks, there is something wrong there.

  9. Peter Payne

    I am a huge Apple fan, but I think that if Apple blocked iTunes compatibility they would be exposing themselves to valid anti-competition complaints. I mean, they’re the leading software in their field, breaking all other companies’ compatibility would not be so different from Microsoft using its special status in an abusive manner.

  10. Steven

    I don’t think this will be a black eye for Palm. To the contrary, this is a can’t-loose situation. If Apple sues, or if they break the functionality, it only serves, from a PR standpoint, to sanction the Pre as a legitimate threat to Apple. The Palm folks, given the fact that they are disproportionately populated by ex-Apple cogs, will certainly understand the value of that buzz. If they work out a deal, then the Pre will legally possess iTunes functionality, which they can then continue to trumpet as a major feature.

  11. Seetou

    Nobody reads the article!!!, this is not working the way nomad or other iTunes compatible players did (via a plug-in), the thing is making itself look like an iPod to iTunes. Clearly Apple does not want competittors to join in the middle of the ecosystem, but does let them to get the data via open standards ways.

  12. Jim

    I think people are missing one point here. Look how often Apple updates Itunes. It isn’t every week. More like once every couple of months. Apple is not going to want to change their development cycle to defend against the Palm Pre. So lets say the cat and mouse game starts with Apple and Palm. Apple will be causing a problem for ALL of their users with doing more frequent updates of Itunes while Palm will just be updating the Pre for compatibility.

    At some point, the cat and mouse game will be won by Palm. There are only so many changes they can do to break the Pre before it will take a complete update to their protocol for all their ipod devices. To maintain compatibility, they can’t just change their protocol.

    The biggest stick that Apple has would be the court system. They can take palm to court using DMCA. I doubt Apple would win but they could get an injunction against Palm and kill this stuff.

    I think from a technology point of view Palm has the upper hand because they can be more agile with “compatibility” updates

  13. Craig

    Apple will snuff this out with an iTunes update, no doubt about it. They have done something similar in the past, when dealing with 3rd-party ringtone apps. They can release updates pretty quickly, and I have no doubt they built in additional “tests” devices must pass before being able to sync.

    I see zero motivation for Apple to allow Palm to sync. Remember, iTunes exists to sell more Apple devices, not to sell music or enable competitors devices to play that music.

  14. Rob

    The simple solution for Apple would be to wrap some cryptography around the iPod/iPhone authentication procedure with iTunes in an upcoming version. Then DMCA Palm to hell.

    Palm are on a bit of a slippery slope here if they are ignoring Industry USB standards and falsely identifying the Pre as an Apple device to sync with iTunes. Goes to show how limited and stretched the development budget is for Palm, given it wouldn’t be too hard to follow Nokia et al and develop their own Music Sync solution.

    I’d almost hazard a guess this might be a strategic move on Palms behalf to create a legal counter action against Apple for the Patent infringement lawsuit that is going to happen soon after the Pre is launched. Apple sues for multiple violations of multi-touch patents and Palm counter sues that the iPhone is an illegal extension of the (legal) monolopy held by the iTunes ecosystem. They could take this challenge all the way through to the App store being solely for Apple devices and demand it be opened to Palm Pre and other devices. The objective though is to slow down Apples Patent lawsuits long enough to sell enough Pre’s so the company doesn’t have to file for Bankruptcy. Palm have nothing to lose and everything to gain if their Pre phone can establish itself as a iPhone Lite.

  15. Spaniard

    The thing is Apple will break it, not because it want to break it but because as a no supported device it would not be tested and in some point in time the shit will hit the fan.

    Apple has had problems with some iTunes updates with his own ipods so think what would happen with a non tested device or are you implying that apple should buy a bunch of Pres so it test itunes against them as a favor to Palm.

  16. Adrian

    Nice little write up, Jon.

    Since some of the comments start to address some of the business issues (revenue, strategy, etc) influencing Apple’s decision making with iTunes, I’d just like to throw this one into the mix: the bottom line. Yes, anyone can download iTunes for free. That doesn’t mean it’s free for Apple to give it away for free. iTunes includes a number of non-Apple related IP (codecs, etc) and services (Gracenote, etc). You’d assume that given Apple’s position, they are able to negotiation yearly, worldwide, flat fee license payments for most of these. There might be a few they are still paying per unit (unit being a download). Back in early 2000s when Audio CD ripping was introduced into iTunes, Apple were rumored to be paying the RIAA a fee per Mac sold. Essentially blood money.

    Apple blocking Palm Pre might primary be a competitive decision (if they do it), however it might also be a financial one. Just a thought.

Comments are closed.