Apple's hypocritical move to block competitors from accessing iTunes.

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Sept. 28 2009 3:44 PM

Free iTunes!

Apple's hypocritical move to block competitors from accessing its software.

Palm.

In May, Palm announced that its new phone, the Pre, would do something that only a single other smartphone in the world could do—"synchronize seamlessly with iTunes." For years, manufacturers of digital music players had been trying to compete with Apple's dominant music app. They'd all failed. iTunes is one of the most popular downloads in the world and one of the main reasons people love the iPod and the iPhone. Palm—whose CEO, Jon Rubinstein, is a former Apple executive who'd been instrumental in creating the iPod—understood that it couldn't beat iTunes. So why not join it?

There's a simple reason why not—Apple doesn't allow third-party devices to sync with its software. But Palm found the restriction easy to circumvent: Every device that connects to a computer's USB port identifies itself with a specific vendor and product code. Palm simply copied Apple's USB codes. It's the digital equivalent of telling a bouncer that you're McLovin: When you hook up the Pre to your PC, it identifies itself as an iPod. iTunes thinks you've just connected something made by Steve Jobs—and it syncs your music and movies just as it would if you'd purchased the gadget from the Apple store.

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Apple, of course, doesn't approve of this. And so began a tedious cat-and-mouse game. Every time Apple releases a new version of iTunes, it disables the Palm Pre's syncing capability; the syncing comes back every time Palm updates its software. (As of Apple's release of iTunes 9, the Pre cannot sync with Apple's software; Palm says it's working on restoring access.) In July, Palm complained about Apple's iTunes block to the USB Implementers Forum, the trade group that manages the USB specification. But the move backfired. In a letter sent last week, the USB-IF exonerated Apple and told Palm that it was in the wrong for copying Apple's USB codes.

The USB-IF didn't say whether it would try to enforce its ruling; Palm says that it's reviewing the decision. I hope the company continues to search for ways to sync with iTunes, because the fight—silly as it seems—is important, and Palm is clearly in the right. Apple may have the USB-IF on its side, and it may also be protected by copyright law. But by blocking non-Apple devices from its music app, Apple is violating a more fundamental principle of computing—that unalike devices should be able to connect to one another freely. The principle underlies everything we take for granted in tech today: It's why the Internet, your home network, and the PC function at all. And it's why Palm should keep storming the iTunes fortress.

I am not claiming that Palm has the legal right to hack into Apple's software, nor am I calling on any authorities to compel Apple to let Palm in; if the cat-and-mouse game turns into a courtroom brawl, it's very likely that Apple would win the fight. Instead, I'm calling on Apple to stand down. Even better: It should create a legal pathway for Palm and every other company to sync with iTunes. Why? The most obvious reason is that it's good for iTunes users. Nobody other than Apple benefits from locked-down software. Apple frequently extols the wonders of digital music—the convenience, the flexibility, the environmental friendliness. But how flexible can it be if you're allowed to sync your tunes only with devices made by a single company?

What's more, the iTunes block is hypocritical. Like every other tech company, Apple has benefited enormously from the spirit of interconnectedness that pervades the tech industry. The iPod would have fizzled if Microsoft had blocked it from hooking up to Windows PCs. Or look at the iPhone—Apple is proud that it can sync with Outlook, Microsoft Exchange, Gmail, Yahoo, and just about everything else. Indeed, you could argue that Apple, once left for dead on the periphery of the tech industry, managed to come back only because it skillfully marketed Macs as the most promiscuous computers you could buy. Around the turn of the century, Jobs began touting the Mac as a "digital hub" for your home. You know what he meant? That the Mac would hook up with anything. Clearly, the pitch worked: Apple still sells Macs by pointing to the ability to connect to Windows networks and their easy compatibility with third-party printers, cameras, and other devices. The latest version of the Mac OS can even automatically sync with Microsoft Exchange—something not even Windows does.

Apple defenders might argue that the company connects with systems only when it has the legal right to do so; Apple isn't hacking its way into compatibility, and we should resent Palm for doing so. But that's a circular argument. Palm had to resort to hacking only because Apple closed down any legal paths for entry—making illegal the very same sort of compatibility that Apple itself has long depended on. Hacking was Palm's only option.

What's more, Apple itself hasn't been shy about achieving compatibility through means that other companies consider "hacking." Look at Samba, the fantastic open-source project that lets non-Windows computers connect to Windows networks. The project began as a hack: In 1991, Andrew Tridgell, then a Ph.D. student at the Australian National University, reverse-engineered the traffic on his local network to figure out how to communicate with Microsoft machines. Over several years, his effort grew into what is now the main way for Unix-based machines to share files with Windows. Microsoft long took a dim view of Samba; in 2007, after years of legal wrangling, European regulators forced it to allow Samba to interoperate freely with Windows. But Apple didn't wait for that ruling—it built Samba into the Mac OS in 2002. In other words, so what if Microsoft didn't like Samba? Apple needed to build an OS that connected to Windows, and Samba was the best way to accomplish that.

Apple often gets away with behavior we'd never sanction from other companies. If Microsoft began preventing rivals' devices from connecting with Windows, the tech industry would go ape. If Google gave preferential treatment to its sites on its search engine, European regulators would threaten a lawsuit. Apple's exclusionary ways weren't very consequential when it was merely a tech-industry also-ran. But now that it's a behemoth, we—its customers—should demand that it play by the same rules as everyone else.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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