Last week Apple, in an incident destined for the textbooks, rejected an iPhone app called Eucalyptus, which lets you download and read classic public-domain books from Project Gutenberg. The rejection meant that nobody could download or use the app (without jailbreaking their phone). Apple’s rationale? Some of the books, in Apple’s view, were inappropriate.
Apple’s behavior put me in mind of the Pick-a-Little Ladies from the classic musical The Music Man. These women, named for their signature song “Pick a Little, Talk a Little,” condemn Marian the Librarian for having inappropriate books in her library:
Maud: Professor, her kind of woman doesn’t belong on any committee. Of course, I shouldn’t tell you this but she advocates dirty books.
Harold: Dirty books?!
This is pretty much the scene we saw last week, with the Eucalyptus app in the role of Marian — providing works by Chaucer, Rabelais, and Balzac — and Apple in the role of the Pick-a-Little Ladies. Visualize Steve Jobs, in his black turtleneck and jeans, transported back to 1912 Iowa and singing along with these frumpy busybodies.
Later in The Music Man, the Pick-a-Little Ladies decide that Marian is all right after all, and they praise her for offering great literature. (“The Professor told us to read those books, and we simply adored them all!”) In the same way, Apple, after the outcry over its muzzling of Eucalyptus, reverse course and un-rejected Eucalyptus. Now we can all get Chaucer! Rabelais! Balzac! on our iPhones.
But there is one important difference between Apple and the Pick-a-Little Ladies. Apple had the power to veto Eucalyptus, but the Ladies couldn’t stop Marian from offering dirty books. The Ladies were powerless because Old Man Mason had cleverly bequeathed the library building to the town but the books to Marian. In today’s terms, Mason had jailbroken the library.
All of this highlights the downside of Apple’s controlling strategy. It’s one thing to block apps that are fraudulent or malicious, but Apple has gone beyond this to set itself up as the arbiter of good taste in iPhone apps. If you were Apple, would you rather be the Pick-a-Little Ladies, pretending to sit in judgement over the town, or Old Man Mason, letting people make their own choices?