Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Looking ahead in 2010: Biblical Studies and Tech Tools

I started this post about a month ago and never got around to finishing it. A main focus of my prognostications was the potential of mobile devices like netbooks, ebook readers, and the (then still rumored) Apple tablet device. With the announcement of the iPad (I was thinking it would be called an iTablet), I can now appear to have been somewhat prophetic... Now updated, here's what I am thinking is on the horizon in technology as it relates to biblical studies.

I am convinced that we are moving to an available-everywhere Internet and that we are going to be using mobile devices to access it. Smartphones have become the device of choice for many, and their advantage is that they are small and can handle the primary tasks of texting, web surfing, email, and, oh, yeah, making phone calls. Many can also serve as MP3 players, game- and video-playing devices, GPS, etc., and, with the abundance of apps now available, as your biblical studies resource too. Their disadvantage is that they are small. It's not just that web-surfing is limited on such devices because of screen size, but they are physically too small. I hate misdialing numbers or text because the keys are so small. With my oldER person's eyes, I have to beef up the font size, and that just means so much less viewable text on the screen. Compared to my current phone's 1 inch square display, most newer phones do have quite nice displays and larger viewing areas. (E.g., Apple iPhone or Google Nexus One or Droid. For now, I have what I need with my old phone and my old but still trustworthy Dell Axim x51v.) So they are great as portable devices, but not for getting serious work accomplished. Will something like the forthcoming Dell Mini5 be better? (Maybe, but I'm not sure I want to put that thing up to my ear when I use it as a phone.) So, is it necessary to choose between the convenience of portability and the need for greater functionality that a laptop offers? And where do ebook readers and netbooks fit in? I believe there is a place something like the now-announced Apple iPad, but the iPad isn't it. Personally, I'd be more inclined to get a good netbook which can do more than the iPad and cost less. If we are heading toward ebook readers, then I think they are going to need to be able to do more in terms of being good tools for students to highlight and take notes (like this) or for being interactive devices with live updates (like this or this or this). Of course there is all sorts of new technology coming down the line...
So what do I want? I want a phone that can provide access to all my biblical stuff in a pinch (like I can now do with my Dell Axim). It would also be nice to have all those other nice goodies like web access, email, MP3, GPS, ... I can probably do that (for a price! and for data fees!) if I ever upgrade my phone and when my Axim dies. I'm the sort that will be looking for a phone using either Android or Windows Mobile 7. I applaud companies like Olive Tree and Laridian for the work they do on developing Bible resources for the various mobile platforms. Logos is also to be commended for their iPhone app. (And how about something for Android next?) To do more substantial work, however, I think I will still use a real computer with at least the minimum functionality offered by a netbook.
With all that said, I still suspect that Apple's iPad (in its 2nd generation) will generate the cool buzz to make more people look at this form factor. Since it seems to be not much of a deal to move apps from the iPhone/iTouch to the iPad, it will have a lot of momentum going forward.

I'm doing more and more of my personal and seminary work in the cloud. I'm using Live Mesh to keep my home and sem computers synced, in particular, the notes I'm writing in BibleWorks8. I'm using drop.io to back up files, make them accessible from any computer, and share them with students. I'm integrating blogs, nings, Google Docs, wikis, and diigo into my courses as ways of sharing and developing resources. I'm also really liking using Google Wave for doing collaborative work that uses threaded discussions. I use Xmarks to keep my browser bookmarks synced across various machines and have access from any machine. (Weave Sync is another option for Firefox.) I use Zotero to do my bibliographic work, and it also automatically keeps things synced across my computers and is accessible from any machine.
What are the themes here?
  • Collaboration: I'm using social networking tools and sites that allow for multiple authors to do collaborative work. 
  • Resource Availability: I'm still not comfortable having my stuff exist solely on the web. (Google Wave is this way for now, but it is still in beta, and it appears that one will be able to download waves in the future.) What I do really like is the kind of syncing to multiple computers AND online access from any computer allowed by tools like Live Mesh, Xmarks, GoogleDocs, and Zotero. 
In relation to biblical studies, Laridian has one good idea with its way of automatically syncing the desktop version of the program and its notes with the USB drive version you can use in any machine. I also like that the Logos iPhone app (which I've only used it on my daughter's iTouch) allows you to access most of the library you have on your computer.

[BTW, for a list of utility software (most of which is free), I recommend THESE to my students.]

For doing serious original language work, I don't think Accordance, BibleWorks, or Logos can be surpassed. I am impressed, however, with some of the free Bible software that is available (e.g., LaParola or e-Sword) and with some of the online Bible resources sites (e.g., NET Bible, Great Treasures, Biblos, or Bible Web App). Most of these are labors of love and service which generate little or no income. On behalf of all of us who use them, you have our thanks! There are, at least, the kind of resources I can recommend to interested lay persons who don't necessarily want to invest in or are able to make full use of the big commercial programs. (BTW, for a somewhat complete listing of such resources, check HERE.)
As far as the future goes of Accordance, BibleWorks, and Logos, I have no inside information. Looking back and watching how they have progressed, however, it appears that they all have been rather faithful to their roots even as they add features and tools. I hope they all continue to thrive, because not only do they do somewhat different things, but I think the competition is good as a way of encouraging innovations and improvements. One such area is the creation of biblical texts that are syntactically analyzed. Another area where all of them are working is integration with online resources.

Okay, so I haven't really gone out on a limb to make any wild predictions here. I've done better at describing the current state of things and identified some trends. If you want some provocative future predictions, check this timeline. Be sure to check the prediction for 2020. Imagine having, say, an entire biblical library implanted in your brain, always available just for the thinking of it. Are you thinking of it? Are you thinking it is something we really want in our future?

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