USB-IF Sides with Apple, Slaps Palm

We have a new chapter in the Palm Pre and iTunes saga. We all remember that the Pre could sync with iTunes, but that Apple wasn’t particularly keen on this. The Cupertino company issued an iTunes which intentionally broke Pre syncing, but Palm retorted by re-enabling it not long after. Palm also sent a complaint to the USB Implementers Forum about Apple’s behaviour, but the USB-IF squarely sides with Apple.

Originally, Palm achieved iTunes sync for the Palm Pre by changing the device_id to make it look like an iPod to iTunes. Apple broke this little trick with an iTunes update, and was unusually frank about it too. “[The update] disables devices falsely pretending to be iPods, including the Palm Pre,” an Apple spokesperson said back then.

Palm didn’t rest on its laurels, and restored iTunes syncing with the release of webOS 1.1. Now the Pre not only pretended to be an iPod, it also pretended to be made by Apple, by using Apple’s vendor_id. It wasn’t until the recent release of iTunes 9 that Apple broke syncing yet again.

In the meantime, however, Palm had sent a complaint to the USB Implementers Forum. “Palm believes that openness and interoperability offer better experiences for users by allowing them the freedom to use the content they own without interference across devices and services,” the company wrote, “So on behalf of consumers, we have notified the USB Implementers Forum of what we believe is improper use of the Vendor ID number by another member.” Of course, Palm’s use of Apple’s vendor_id is also improper use.

With the imminent release of webOS 1.2 (or 1.2.1, we don’t know yet), which will most likely fix iTunes syncing again, Palm has been dealt a sort-of blow by the USB-IF. In response to the complaint, the Forum states two things. First, that Apple’s use of the vendor_id to lock competitors out of iTunes is not against the policies of the USB-IF

In the view of the USB-IF, Palm’s allegation (if true) does not establish that Apple is using its Vendor ID (VID) contrary to the USB-IF’s policies. Therefore, under present USB-IF policies, the USB-IF does not consider the alleged use, without more, to be ‘improper’.

Secondly, it states that Palm’s use of Apple’s vendor_id is clearly in violation of policy – which we already knew:

Under the Policy, Palm may only use the single Vendor ID issued to Palm for Palm’s usage. Usage of any other company’s Vendor ID is specifically precluded. Palm’s expressed intent to use Apple’s VID appears to violate the attached policy.

Now let’s look at what this means. It’s quite simple, actually: Palm is wrong, Apple is not. The USB-IF clearly looks at this situation from a practical standpoint – they don’t care about any possible deeper ideal that the USB standard is supposed to embody, something Palm was hinting at: namely, that the USB spec is about promoting interoperability, and should not be used to hinder it.

As much as I agree with Palm’s deeper intention, the USB-IF is doing the right thing by simply applying policy and not concerning itself with any idealistic fluff that us geeks care about. Yes, I believe that it is dangerous that the world’s single biggest online music store is only fully accessible via Apple’s (dreadful, in my book) iTunes application, and that we will one day regret giving Apple all this freedom. However, rules are rules.

So, what will happen if Palm continues to abuse Apple’s device_id? Absolutely bloody nothing. Palm may lose the right to use the USB logo, but that’s about it. In other words, Palm can continue to play their marketing trick, and the media will continue to mention this whole deal whenever a new version of iTunes is released.

Within the rules or not, you have to hand it to Rubinstein: this was clever.


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