Apple: the Microsoft of Smartphones?

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Surely I can't be the only one noting the irony of Apple's iPhone marketing. You know, the "there's an app for that" ads that focus on how much software is available for its platform. After all, for years one of Apple's major roadblocks was that many more applications were available on Windows. But that wasn't supposed to matter for those nonconformist Mac users (at least until Intel systems let us run multiple operating systems on a Mac).

Now, it's Microsoft touting how great its OS software works. And Apple, the tech company that made its mark with a "think different" ad campaign, in the smartphone world promotes the fact that so many others have flocked to its platform.

There's nothing wrong with popularity (although it does seem odd to essentially be promoting your market share in one segment while hoping people will ignore it in another). And there are lots of things right with creating a platform that appeals to developers. But what you do with your rising clout is instructive. Apple is clearly the market leader in the electronic music world. And its decision to block the Palm Pre from syncing with iTunes is telling.

When Apple needs another company's hardware (and access to its customers), they are happy to support it. Does anyone think the iPod would enjoy its commanding MP3 market share if iTunes software only ran on OS X? I am just one of millions who would never have thought to buy an iPod if the syncing software wasn't available for Windows.

Of course, Apple doesn't appear worried about the Zune (nor should they be). But I do think they're concerned about their position in the smartphone arena, as more devices appear poised to challenge the iPhone. Apple's still in a strong position, though -- strong enough, it turns out, to try to crush a little guy just as ruthlessly as any other company seeking to ward off competition.

As Seth Weintraub asked when the iTunes-Palm scuffle first began and Apple started blocking the Pre from syncing with iTunes, "Imagine if Microsoft stopped letting iPhone users have acess to their Outlook contact, calendar and email information." How many people would be screaming "antitrust violation!" if Microsoft were blocking a competitor from accessing its data?

The irony of it all hit me yesterday as I was deciding how to move music from my PC to my Pre, given that iTunes syncing has been turned off. And my first stop was Microsoft's Windows Media Player, which does indeed sync natively with Palm's Pre.

That's right. I was turning to Microsoft to solve a problem with a proprietary, closed data exchange format.

What's particularly galling is that I'm trying to sync up music from my own home collection. I've already given up on the idea of playing DRM-protected music I purchased and downloaded from the iTunes store. Unlike others, I'm not especially ticked off about that, since I understand the initial urge not to have endlessly copied versions of music floating around. However, if I bought a CD, in the old days it was easy for me to listen to it while I was out for a walk (remember portable CD players anyone?) or in my car. Why shouldn't I be able to do the same with a version on my own hard drives?

As it ended up, Windows Media Player wasn't quite the software I was seeking, but for other reasons besides data exchange (I just don't like the UI). For now I'm turning to the free version of MediaMonkey, a scriptable media organizer which touts itself as the "music organizer for the serious collector" offering "painless synchronization with almost any portable player." I may end up paying for a $19 piece of third-party software that will sync iTunes with the Pre, depending on how much I miss my iTunes playlists, how little I feel like re-creating them elsewhere and whether my current ill feelings toward Apple ease.

Note to Apple: I'm not going to ditch the Pre and buy an iPhone in order to sync up my music.

I still like Mac OS X as well as Windows 7. I still would prefer to use Apple's elegant iTunes for playlists and syncing. But I don't like their attitude toward my smartphone. And it speaks volumes that I would even consider turning to open-source-challenged Microsoft to solve a data-interchange problem created by Apple.

This story, "Apple: the Microsoft of Smartphones?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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