The Palm prePod

At OpenNMS we get to work from home a couple of days a week, but I’m really glad that most of us get together in office as well. Not because it makes us work any better or harder, but because the side conversations can be a lot of fun.

Today, Ben and I got into a debate about the new Palm Pre and its ability to sync with iTunes.

The Pre connects to the computer via USB and identifies itself as a Palm Pre. However, in “media sync” mode, the mass storage device changes its identity to reflect an iPod. This allows one to sync their Pre with iTunes as if it was an iPod.

The debate was over the question: is Palm breaking the law?

I don’t know enough about USB to know exactly how Palm is achieving this, but if they are returning a string that says “Apple iPod” that would be a trademark violation. However, if they are returning just a number, say “1291” then it gets a little murkier. Some might claim it is the same (since 1291 represents an iPod Touch) but I don’t. In one case it is an obvious abuse of trademark, but in the other it is more of a compatibility hack.

I expect in the next week we’ll see the official responses from Apple and Palm (with the Pre’s release this week and WWDC next week). It should be interesting.

What does this have to do with open source and freedom? A lot, actually. While the digital age makes it a lot easier to copy and move information, it also allows vendors to control a lot more, too. Think about Apple’s DRM in iTunes. One reason I buy all my music from Amazon is that I have a number of non-iPod devices and I want to make sure I can play the music I purchase on them as well. Even when DRM went away at the iTunes Store I still buy from Amazon.

It reminds me of the time (back in 1993) when Garth Brooks wanted to make it illegal to resell CDs, since people were taking them home and recording them. Can you imagine a car company saying “you can buy this sedan but you can never sell it”? It doesn’t make sense.

For example, if I buy an iPod, a Linksys Router or a PS3 and I want to hack the hell out of it, I should be able to do so. Now, I don’t expect the vendor to support me should I screw up the device, but they shouldn’t be able to prevent me from using something I own, pretty much anyway I want. There are certain notable exceptions – I shouldn’t be able to buy a DVD, copy it and sell the copies – but that is a copyright issue and not a property rights issue.

This case will be important since proprietary software and hardware vendors have a vested interest in keeping open source out of their playground. Sometimes the only way to get something I have purchased to work with free software is to come up with a hack, and outlawing such hacks would be unfortunate.

The Palm Pre/iTunes case is a bit different, since it is hardware hacking software (and proprietary hardware and software at that) instead of the other way around. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Apple may be magnanimous and comfortable with its monopoly and ignore it, but more than likely it will take steps to block the “media sync”. In either case Palm wins: it gets to sync with the most popular management program out there or it can claim Apple thinks that the Pre threatens the iPhone. Either will draw even more attention to the Pre.

UPDATE 1: Aaron points out on Twitter a Sega v. Accolade case that might have precedence.

UPDATE 2: Looks like it is 1993 all over again, with game manufacturers wanting a cut of used video games sales. Sheesh.

2 thoughts on “The Palm prePod

  1. Regarding hacking…

    Phone companies are pretty picky about hacking on phones, because you’re not just hacking your handset… you might also be hacking their network. One reason (of many) that they have been unwilling to allow consumers to have access to their source code is because one rogue handset can splatter interference all over the radio spectrum and cause trouble for all other phones within radio range. That’s why these devices are type approved by a standards body before they can be sold.

    Imagine Tarus hacking his iPhone like a CB-radio trucker, breaker 1-9. And the rest of us get bumped from our calls when he keys the mic.

    In general, I agree that you should be able to void your own warranties. But I can see how the phone companies are protecting a lot more than just one lousy handset.


  2. Designing networks properly and establishing proper controls would fix the “issue” of “hackers” as well.
    I can remember having the Nokia with the rolling thingy and a slider, the keyboard was hidden under that slider…made me feel a bit like Neo though it was the later model.
    Anyway, I did some minor change and swoosh had a gsm monitor, showing me packet dumps but gave me options to modify the config as well.
    One switch you could set to on/off was called “Cell Barring”. That’s a function which was used to “Barr” ordinary people from using certain antennas, like the ones in setup or repair.
    If you switched Cell Barring off, your phone would kindly ignore the cell’s “don’t use me” and go ahead and use it. Whether that’s a a good idea or not, I don’t know and it’s not the point.
    The point is that a security model which depends on client behaviour (here: the phone to recon the cell barr information) is prone to fail, it’s simply said: bad design.
    Now, protecting your “source” or your “protocol” because your design is sloppy will not protect you for long in such diverse market as the GSM market (the standards *are* public), even less long if the devices are in the hands of clients.
    So the argument you bring up (“protect the stuff because (it’s so badly designed that it) will be abused”) makes the system actually much more vulnerable because the suppliers can ignore the flaws: Noone knows about them, right?
    Instead of fixing them, they can safely pretend that because nobody knows, nothing will happen.
    Not in the mobile phone world, though. You can mail-order GSM Development Kits and construct your very own base station/cell, become a ruthless IMSI-Catcher with an investment of less than USD 500.

    You bring up radio interference as an argument – a good idea, but keep in mind that if I open the microwave, block the switch which indicates that the door is closed and switch it on, it’ll happily fry whatever comes too close to it and act worse than a russian ECM-device in mid of the cold war.

    In summary, there’s no excuse to “keep things secret”, and there’s no law case neither. What I do not understand though is why Palm does not simply make the “id switch” optional, user-manageable. It’s a software option, let the user chose whether he wants to proclaim himself to be a palm or an ipod or whatever – the “security” which is intended “to protect” the intellectual property of .. wait..of the music I rightfully paid for … let’s skip that now – this security is so weak that it’s not even considerable a measure. It’s a joke, if you pretend that it has any IP.

    The discussion reminds me strangely of NestlĂ© tinkering about imposing that you, someone who bought a coffee machine, can only put NestlĂ©s very own coffee capsules in it. Alas, I buy a device and the vendor tries to impose that I use it not in a certain way? Duh, you’ll have a damn hard time to fight that through given the total ownership on property we have in Europe. It finds it’s limit in protective laws but not in any contract, even not in a contract imagined by Microsoft. A right to use something can be sold, it’s an immaterial value..but that might go a bit too far.

    In any case, Apple should simply add a proper authentication process to their products (like “digital certificates”) if they want to (rightfully) limit the use of itunes to their devices.

    I just think that they never imagined that someone would enact in Palm’s way. Might be they should be good sports and understand it in a different way: Palm is just increasing the customer base of itunes, for free.

Comments are closed.