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Palm 'Pod-Father' Takes on Apple in Sync Spat

Apple and Palm are trading barbs over the subject of the Palm Pre's support for Apple iTunes software, and it appears neither company is backing down.

Palm (NASDAQ: PALM) showed off the iTunes sync feature at a conference last month, a move widely lauded as a successful strategy for courting Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) fans who already have large iTunes libraries.

At issue now is whether or not that feature will work after future upgrades to Apple's digital media players.

Palm's Jon Rubinstein
Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein
Source: Palm

In the past, Apple has often used its regular software upgrades to thwart third-party companies from using the iPhone in unauthorized ways. For instance, hackers could "unlock" their first-generation iPhones to work with carriers other than Apple's partner and exclusive reseller, AT&T -- but the company warned that its future software updates could render their iPhones completely unusable.

The current sparring between Apple and Palm has now taken on similar tones. It's also being closely watched because Palm's newly named CEO, Jon Rubinstein, is an Apple veteran dubbed the "Pod-father" for his integral role in devising the iPod.

When Palm unveiled the feature in late May, the company promised that it "would synchronize seamlessly with iTunes, giving you a simple and easy way to transfer DRM-free music, photos and videos to your Palm Pre."

At the time, Rubinstein said, "We designed Palm media sync to be an easy and elegant way for you to take the content you own and put it on Pre, and it's just one of the ways we think you'll be amazed by webOS."

But on Tuesday, Apple printed a statement on its support site that warned users of services like the Palm Pre's.

"Apple is aware that some third-parties claim that their digital media players are able to sync with Apple software," the company said. "However, Apple does not provide support for, or test for compatibility with, non-Apple digital media players and, because software changes over time, newer versions of Apple's iTunes software may no longer provide syncing functionality with non-Apple digital media players."

In short, those who are using the Palm Pre media sync feature may not be able to do so for long.

Palm responded with its own take on the issue. Spokeswoman Lynn Fox told All Things D: "If Apple chooses to disable media sync in a future version of iTunes, it will be a direct blow to their users who will be deprived of a seamless synchronization experience. 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 could consider."

By press time, Palm and Apple had not returned calls to provide comment on the issue.

So who's right?

Third parties syncing with iTunes is nothing new. However, Palm's approach differs from that of several other third parties.

BlackBerry maker Research In Motion, for instance, offers its own software that reads the iTunes library files and syncs to its devices. The Palm Pre, however, identifies itself to a computer as an iPod and syncs with iTunes directly, rather than through third-party software. It's unclear whether that change will enough to encourage Apple to shut off the Pre's access.

[cob:Special_Report]In the meantime, the debate over whether Apple should relent is divided into two camps. Some think Palm made a huge mistake by not working with Apple to secure a syncing deal in the first place and find it naïve on Palm's part to assume Apple would not want to protect its assets by shutting out the competition.

On the other hand, some fault Apple for being too heavy-handed and not being more open with its software.

One analyst sees the public sparring even working in Palm's favor.

"I see it as a shrewd move on the part of Palm in terms of public relations," William Stofega, analyst at IDC, told InternetNews.com. "This could end up making Apple look like the bad guys who want to cut off usage for a lot of customers."

"Apple does have every right to defend itself, but what Palm did isn't illegal as far as I know, and so the question is, how much does Apple want to play the bully?" he added.

For now, Palm may have more to worry about than the media sync status. Shares of Palm and Sprint, its exclusive carrier, fell 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively, after reports cited discouraging comments from Wachovia Securities analyst Jennifer Fritzsche.

Fritzsche said the smartphone is failing to lure subscribers away from rivals Verizon Wireless and AT&T, and that Pre buyers are primarily Sprint's existing customers.

Eve of the iPhone 3G S

The syncing dust-up is also erupting on the day before the new iPhone 3G S goes on sale in stores, some two weeks since the Pre launched. The industry is abuzz with speculation on how Palm's make-or-break Pre will do compared to the iconic iPhone, while other major wireless players are set to release advanced new models of their own.

In addition to Apple and Palm, RIM, Samsung and Nokia are among the big names committed to pushing out new smartphones this summer, so it's no wonder that the product category is seen as one of the few hot areas in technology -- and as the force driving the overall mobile market.

Recent data from research firm Yankee Group found that 41 percent of consumers are likely to purchase a smartphone as their next mobile device, with smartphones comprising 38 percent of all handsets by 2013.