Steve Jobs has designed some fantastic products.
But that’s something everyone already knows.
What most of us don’t realize is that some of the product decisions Apple has made in the last decade have had a positive, though largely unintended impact on believers in closed, persecuted countries. These are fellow followers of Christ who will never touch an iPhone or use a system named after a big cat, and yet they are now using technology heavily influenced by choices Apple made over the last decade.
What the iPod Meant to the Big-C Church
15 years ago the dominate medium for music and audio was the CD. Then MP3 ripping technology came along and we started converting all of our CDs to MP3s our computer (or, if you were a sinner in the 1990s, you downloaded them from Napster).
Shortly thereafter, the first MP3 players came on the market, but those early models only only had around 128 megabytes of memory, meaning you had to choose which 25 songs you wanted to listen to at one time.
Then, out of the blue, came the iPod with its $400 price tag and radical new interface, and it – as Apple is fond of proclaiming – changed everything. But the significance of the iPod wasn’t the Apple-y-goodness of its clickwheel. No, the iPod was revolutionary because it made gigabytes the new norm for storage capacities.
So why did this matter for the Church?
Well, there are still plenty of people around the world who live in cultures that don’t have a written language. Even if they do have a written language, illiteracy rates are high in many poor countries. This means that it costs millions of dollars to bring in a team that can create a written language out of their spoken words, translate the Bible into that newly created writing standard, and then teach everyone to read it.
The obvious solution was to translate directly into spoken words and give those cultures audio versions of the Scriptures. The problem was that doing so required dozens of CDs and a large playback device.
When the iPod came along, it was suddenly possible to carry a few dozen solar powered Bible in a backpack across the Amazon, the African plains, or the mountains of east Asia. Missionaries could hand such devices to any person anywhere in the world, and that person could hear the Word of God.
An even bigger bonus is that while customs agents often confiscate Bibles and CDs, they don’t care about MP3 players.
The iPhone Changed Everything… Again!
When the iPhone came out with its $600 price tag and single-button interface, it too was loved and ridiculed around the tech world. But as important as its interface was for the future of phone design, the iPhone’s more long-term legacy is that it pushed HTML5 audio and video into the mainstream.
HTML5 media allows web developers to show users audio and video without using plugins like Flash or RealMedia (remember them?). HTML5 video had been around for a few years before the iPhone, but it was never a viable technology since it had such low adoption and there were all kinds of debates about whether HTML5 should use a license-heavy format like H.264 or an “open” format like Ogg/Vorbis (or Google’s new WebM).
But that’s a debate for the rich people of the world to have.
The persecuted Church just need a common standard for video. MP3 had long become the audio standard, but it was only when the iPhone came along that MP4/H.264 became a reasonalbly reliable standard format for video. For the first time, someone could make a video file in H.264 and know that it would work on almost any device.
And Now, the iPad
A few years later the iPad came along and it too was supposed to change the way people lived their lives and did their work.
But like the iPod and iPhone, the significance of the iPad is not really what rich people do with them, but the file format that Apple chose to distribute its content. In the case of the iPad, it was Apple’s choice to use the ePUB format for its ebooks that is beginning to have an impact in digital Bible distribution.
Prior to this decision, it was difficult to know what format to choose for distributing digital copies of the Bible. Adobe’s PDF is great for sending formatted documents that almost any computer can read, but PDF really only works on large computer screens because the text cannot be reformatted to display nicely on small devices like a cell phone.
There are other ebook formats out there that can reflow text such as Amazon’s AZW which it uses on its Kindle platform (or MOBI which Kindle also supports). However, these more proprietary formats are not very helpful as mechanisms for delivering digital Bibles and Christian reading material because they just don’t have wide enough adoption.
But ePUB is a perfect format for a universal book format. It’s basically just a ZIP file with a bunch of HTML webpages inside. Now that Apple has adopted ePUB (along with Barnes and Noble’s Nook), it is becoming a standard for in any ereading device.
Seminary for $79 at Walmart
The man you see in the picture above is one of the members of the Digital Bible Society. DBS specializes in collecting Bibles and theological material and distributing that material in closed countries. They started with Chinese language materials 10 years ago that they distributed on tens of thousands of CDs.
In the picture, Ken is holding up a $79 Ematic Color eReader.
It has a 7” color screen and 4GB of capacity (expandable via microSD).
It can play audio in MP3, play video in MP4, and read books in ePUB.
Ken and his team are preparing gigabytes of Bible, Christian books, and videos like the Jesus film and putting them on devices like the one from Ematic as well as microSD chips that today’s Bible “distributors” can hide in their socks allowing them to sneak biblical materials into highly dangerous countries.
I had the chance to meet with them and some other ministries a few weeks back (they needed an HTML5 player), and they showed me an incredible array of James Bond-like devices that various ministries around the world are using to smuggle these materials in all manner of dark places.
One man talked about being interrogated by secret police for meeting with people and giving them Bibles. Then, through a thick Arabic accent, he said to the group,
“H.264 and ePUB are gifts from God.”
Is the Church Really Behind Technologically?
Occasionally, I hear tech-savvy Christians saying things like, “The church is so behind technologically.”
In one sense this is true.
Most churches simply can’t afford to buy every single new device Apple or any other company produces. But this problem is really unique to those living in the richest country in the world. We debate the finer points of Android vs. iPhone, CDMA vs. GSM, and USB vs. Thundercats (or whatever).
But outside our aberration of wealth, technology for the church takes on an entirely different significance. Pakistanis interested in Christianity can’t take a Bible home without getting killed by their family members. But they can take a microSD card from a missionary, plug in into their phones, and – like Nicodemus long ago (John 3:1-2) – hear from Jesus in the dark.
And this has been happening for quite some time.
When the Egyptians abandoned hieroglyphics for the emerging standard we now call “the alphabet,” Moses jumped on it (Ex. 34:27; Deut. 31:9). When the Hittites invented iron-smelting (around 1200), David snuck in, stole their technology, and then beat them down with it (Judges 1:19; 1 Samuel 13:19; 1 Sam 22:1; 2 Sam 12:29-31). When Alexander forced everyone to learn Greek and when the Romans paved Europe, the Spirit commissioned his disciples to go into all the world – using those roads – and share the message of Jesus – using the common language of Greek – with everyone (Acts 1:8). And we all know the story of the printing press.
Personally, I find it amazing that God has repeatedly used technology as a means of furthering his church. He is perfectly capable of working through dreams and miracles and yet he chooses to use the tools made by those who don’t yet know him to glorify himself and draw men and women to the Savior.
And that changes everything.