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Palm Intros SDK, Disses Apple's iTunes Sync Move

Apple, Palm Pre and iTunes
Palm today released a software development kit (SDK) for its new webOS mobile operating system, ushering in a critical phase as the company looks to right itself on the strength of its new Pre smartphone.

However, the news comes on the heels of efforts by Apple to block the Pre's ability to sync with iTunes, a feature previously touted by Palm (NASDAQ: PALM) executives.

It's unclear whether the net effect of the week's developments will hurt the company. But for the time being, Palm is counting on its new Mojo SDK -- downloadable from its new developer portal, Palm webOSdev -- to woo developers to the webOS platform that powers the Pre.

While the Pre generally received positive reviews, industry watchers have criticized Palm for not launching the smartphone with more applications and for not providing access to the SDK earlier in the release cycle. The premise is that the software will sell the hardware, and Palm's very existence relies on sales of the new Pre.

So far, however, Palm has said that applications on the Pre have been faring well.

"The initial response to Palm webOS apps -- from both developers and customers -- has been enthusiastic," Jon Zilber, Palm's online communications director, wrote in a blog post. "Even in its initial beta stage, over 1.8 million apps have been downloaded from the beta App Catalog since Palm Pre was released less than six weeks ago. Thousands of developers have participated in the Mojo SDK early access program since it began in early April."

Zilber added that new applications are "in the pipeline" for Palm's App Catalog -- its mobile applications marketplace -- and that it plans to begin accepting submissions to all developers in the fall.

The Palm Pre went on sale June 6, and the company, with newly appointed CEO Jon Rubenstein -- known for his integral role in creating the iPod at Apple -- is in the midst of a major makeover built around the webOS ecosystem.

Central to that plan is a fully featured SDK that can help capitalize on webOS's strengths. Developers say the webOS, which uses familiar Web development tools, be embraced by the coding community because its low barrier to entry means applications can be completed and brought to market quicker than other apps built on proprietary platforms, like the iPhone.

Apple strikes back

But Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) may have had the last word this week, after all.

Yesterday, the company released update to iTunes, version 8.2.1, that blocks the Palm Pre from acting like an iPod and syncing with iTunes -- a key selling point of the new phone.

"iTunes 8.2.1 is a free software update that provides a number of important bug fixes. It also disables devices falsely pretending to be iPods, including the Palm Pre," Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr told InternetNews.com. "As we've said before, newer versions of Apple's iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with unsupported digital media players."

The move by Apple is not entirely surprising, given the public sparring between the two companies over the Pre's iTunes syncing feature.

When Apple started hinting in mid-June that any future iTunes updates would not support syncing with the Pre, Palm responded by offering a workaround and saying Apple wasn't acting in the best interest of its customers.

And Palm is sticking to that claim.

[cob:Special_Report]"If Apple chooses to disable media sync in iTunes, it will be a direct blow to their users who will be deprived of a seamless synchronization experience," a Palm spokesman told InternetNews.com. "However, people will have options. They can stay with the iTunes version that works to sync their music on their Pre, they can transfer the music via USB, and there are other third-party applications we can consider."

Neumayr declined to respond to these statements.

Industry watchers are divided on the effectiveness of the Palm strategy. One line of thinking is that Palm was naïve to include the feature without Apple's approval, and that Apple has every right to disrupt its competitor's tool set.

On the other hand, some think the move by Apple is heavy-handed and believe Apple should be more open with its software.

Avi Greengart, research director for consumer and mobile devices at Current Analysis, predicted Apple's move in a June 8 report.

He wrote, "The Pre really does show up in iTunes as 'Palm Pre' and usurps the logo of an iPod classic. The Pre can't play any copy-protected content -- almost all video found on iTunes, for example -- but compatibility with iTunes makes transferring music and podcasts a snap. However, it wouldn't be a surprise if the next version of iTunes breaks this compatibility. "

But Greengart doesn't see the lack of the iTunes sync feature as crippling Palm's sales.

"You don't buy a Pre because it pretends it's an iPod -- that was just a nice bonus," Greengart told InternetNews.com. "The Pre can still be loaded up with music from your PC, it's just a manual process now."

While syncing with iTunes by third parties isn't new, Palm's approach differs from its predecessors, which is why controversy erupted over the feature.

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM), for instance, offers its own software that reads the iTunes library files and syncs to its devices. The Palm Pre, however, identified itself to a computer as an iPod and synced with iTunes directly, rather than through third-party software.