April 18, 2014

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iPhone Apps: Apple Picks a Little, Talks a Little

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?!

Alma: Chaucer!

Ethel: Rabelais!

Eulalie: Balzac!

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?

Comments

  1. Dan says:

    The irony, no, the hypocrisy, of Apple in this situation is laughable.

    You can use your Safari browser on the iPhone to visit the most depraved websites [not that I would know, no winky emoticon here, so maybe I'm wrong and Apple does ], but you can’t use a 3rd party app which can access the Project Gutenberg material.

    In fact as I type this, it seems bizarre at best that you can use Safari to visit the Project Gutenberg site [this I did verify], just not a 3rd party app.

    This is another opportunity for Android & Blackberry lovers to laugh scoffingly at us iPhone users.

    • Dan says:

      sorry didn’t finish editing ….. meant to type [maybe Apple does filter sites on the Safari browser]

      Regardless I don’t see Apple’s behavior such as this continuing for very long. In many ways the internet is still the wild west. Apple can try to plug holes in the dyke but that is a fool’s game in this industry.

  2. brent says:

    except that Apple isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a government entity.

    people need to stop making the mistake that entities like Apple and Google and Microsoft SHOULD be protectors of free speech.

    • Frater Plotter says:

      And why shouldn’t Internet companies and computer makers be protectors of free speech? The freedom of the Internet is precisely why they have been able to prosper so mightily in the past several years. If it weren’t for random Web sites, porn, weird-ass blogs, and P2P, they’d be selling a lot fewer machines, ads, etc.

    • Adam says:

      I agree with what was written Apple is not a government entity.
      Adam at chicago storage guide

    • felten says:

      I wasn’t arguing that Apple’s actions were illegal, only that they were silly and counterproductive.

      Apple is not the government, so Apple is not required by law to protect free speech. But there are plenty of things in life that are good to do, even if they’re not required by law.

      Apple presents itself as a savvy and responsible company. If you want to have that kind of corporate image, you will want do more than the bare minimum that is legally required.

  3. bmaryott says:

    The Kindle app lets you get all kinds of books for free.

    Bookshelf lets you load any book you can get in PRC/PDB/MOBI (or RTF/some PDF/TXT/DOC but it has to convert them.)

    They have a web browser that you can use to get porn. Oh, and go to the Gutenberg site….

  4. Anonymous says:

    Not only does it lampoon wannabe social watchdogs like Apple, it starts playing in my head whenever I hear women gossiping maliciously.

  5. Bill Higgins says:

    “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.”

    I’ve loved The Music Man for years, but never understood this particular point until just now. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    (I might naively have expected that the MM figure to which Steve Jobs might be compared would be Professor Harold Hill; indeed, a little googling indicates that less subtle writers have.)

  6. Jon Marcus says:

    I may be missing something here, but I believe Apple reversed course on this a while back, days before this was posted. From Ars Technica on May 26th headlined Apple steps up and approves e-book reader Eucalyptus: “Over the weekend, Apple reversed its decision to reject the e-book reader app Eucalyptus from the App Store on the basis that it can access an English translation of the Kama Sutra.:

    This was a boneheaded move, but given how swiftly it was reversed it doesn’t seem fair to blame it on Steve Jobs.

  7. Anonymous says:

    There was already an approved app that could browse and download Project Gutenberg books called Stanza!

  8. Mitch Golden says:
  9. Anonymous says:

    You can also get the Kama Sutra via Amazon Kindle store… does that mean they should reject/pull the Kindle app?