In the Palm of iTunes' Hand: Why won't Apple play nice?

I tune, you tune, we all tune to iTunes.

Except if you own a Palm Pre.

Or anything without an Apple logo, for that matter.

When Palm announced earlier this year that its spanking new Pre smartphone would be able to sync with Apple's iTunes, it raised eyebrows for tweaking the nose of the mighty fruity company. After all, Apple has spent years -- and likely huge amounts of money and countless souls of lawyers and judges alike -- setting the standard for zealously protecting its intellectual property. One doesn't cross Apple lightly, or expect to get away with it for too long.

The other shoe drops

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)So it comes as no surprise that barely a month after issuing a support note containing a thinly veiled warning against the practice, Apple has officially and concretely responded to Palm's opening move by releasing an update to iTunes. Known as version 8.2.1, the new code specifically kills the ability of earlier versions of iTunes to sync content on non-Apple devices. Palm Pre users with a particular addiction to iTunes now face a short list of inelegant alternatives: They can either elect to never upgrade iTunes beyond 8.2, or revert to dragging and dropping their music files onto their device. If they're feeling really adventurous, they can always pull out that scuffed up first-generation Shuffle from the junk drawer and go to town. Either way, the Pre's days as a wannabe-iPod are over.

Of course, Apple is free to do whatever it wants with its software. It built iTunes as a value-add to its iPod -- and later iPhone -- franchise and in doing so taught the rest of the industry that you needed more than a cool device to dominate the media player market. The resulting troika of hardware, software and online store set the bar for seamless acquisition, management and use of content, and now most other players in this space are rushing similar software/store combinations to market. But Apple was the first, and it remains the gold standard against a fleet of half-hearted competitors.

Apple rightfully owns the digital music market, and since all's fair in marketing and war, the company is completely justified in protecting its interests when at least one of the legs of its painstakingly built triad comes under threat. We may not have liked the kid at the playground who took his ball away from us and went home in a snit. But it was his ball, after all.

Because iTunes is an OS

What's good for the company, however, may not be good for the rest of us…and that playground kid always ended up with no friends, anyway.

Apple's move to cut Palm off begs the question of how closed we want our operating systems to be. And don't doubt it for a second: ITunes has evolved into an operating system in its own right, an ecosystem within which developers and content creators bring productions to market, and within which consumers consume those productions and fuel significant revenue streams for all involved. Like any good OS, iTunes is now the focal point of a large, vibrant marketplace within which a wide range of stakeholders interact almost constantly as they build increasingly sustainable businesses within it.

We may dismiss iTunes' claim to OS status because it's "only" music and video, but there's no denying how influential Apple's once-modest playground has become. And given the broader world's slow and inevitable move toward more open platforms that invite diversity in, Apple's decision to maintain its walled garden suggests it's nowhere near comfortable giving up even the slightest bit of control.

Apple's core values have long revolved around tight integration of hardware and software, and rigid control of the resulting environment. By keeping third-party hardware vendors out, Apple avoids the kind of billion-iteration challenge faced by Microsoft, which devotes vast resources to ensuring Windows runs on every combination of system board, video subsystem and disk controller known to humankind. Apple's short-lived experiment with clones in the mid-90s ended for precisely that reason: The company's culture simply couldn't accommodate a big, wide interface with third-party providers. Back then, Apple decided it would be easier to design an experience around a small number of its own designs. That fanaticism holds true today whether it's a Mac or an iPod/iPhone, and will probably remain true in virtually everything Apple brings to market for the forseeable future.

But it's publicly unfair

While this may be good for Apple, it makes me wonder how this serves the public's interest. Do we want one company exerting such tight control over something that's so instrumental to so many of us? Is it fair to consumers that the now-mainstream capability of iTunes can only be had on Apple-branded devices? And does barring access from competing hardware ultimately harm Apple's ability to grow its market? You may laugh at that last one -- after all, Apple's done pretty nicely for itself thus far. But you've got to wonder whether revenues would grow more quickly if iTunes could be used seamlessly on a wider range of devices.

Want more heresy? Should Apple's App Store be open to other hardware platforms aside from the iPhone and iPod touch? Would the iPhone universe be a happier, or more profitable, place if iPhone apps ran on non-Apple hardware? It's fair to speculate given the slowly growing open source influence in the mobile market as Google's Android OS is joined by offerings from the Nokia-backed Symbian Foundation and LiMo. While it's preposterous at this point to assume any of these new entrants will render Apple's model obsolete overnight, it's not much of a stretch to conclude the open source trend is being watched carefully in Cupertino. But will that be enough to convince Apple to voluntarily play nice with Palm and any other vendor that wants sanctioned hooks into its software?

We may never know, because hell will probably freeze over before Apple pulls down the walls to its various gardens. From where Steve Jobs and Co. sit, it ain't broke, so they have no intention of fixing it.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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