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The Need for Publishing Standards

My previous entry seems to have elicited some discussion about standards in the Bible software industry. Both Tim Bulkeley and Ken Ristau have written some comments on the matter (for which I am always grateful). Also, Davide Salomoni makes some follow-up comments on his blog (with some references to another of my posts). I am fully aware that this is a very difficult and complex area, and I am so extremely busy right now that I can barely sketch some of the issues that, to my mind, should be considered in greater depth. These are some of the facts: • Today, almost every company uses a propriety format for the texts and tools they release (despite the fact that all text development starts with some fairly standard files) • Over ninety per cent of these formats are, by definition, not compatible with the other formats • Most programs do not provide a means to export their material to some widely used format (e.g., TXT, RTF, HTML, XML) • Some of the materials (mostly in the public domain) go through a process of revisions, corrections, etc. which virtually transform them into something quite different to the original work • Not all titles are available for every application (in fact many are not even available in electronic format yet!) As a result: • Many users have paid more than once (or twice!) for the same resource • It is not infrequent to have to buy and install more than one program in order to use the materials one needs/wants to work with • There are a number of versions of the same tool, sometimes with notable differences among them The ideal (a tentative proposal): • All software packages should work with the same format • The differences should be in the added value of every program, not in the contents (at least not primarily, and allowing for the fact that different companies will quite naturally release different materials) • Users would have to be persuaded to choose this or that application, and not feel they have to "put up" with any given software simply because it is the only one that carries a certain title Let me use an analogy. In the traditional publishing world you have a single, universal standard: the printed page. All contents are available in that same format, but then you can choose to buy this edition or the other based on your preferences (paperback/hardback, binding, typesetting), price tag (pocket edition, general edition, study edition), or pluses (indexes, bilingual versions, critical notes). Different publishers carry different titles, but readers don't have to worry about such things as compatibility. Books are books! And when a given title is published by more than one publisher, people simply choose the edition they like the most. Now, Bible software doesn't work like that. There is no single format, but many. Generally speaking, you can't just get the contents from whatever vendor you like and read them as you prefer; the content is bound to a given interface, features, options, and so on. As I see it, this is not fair on the user. You may say, of course, that the specific tagging of the texts is what makes it possible for a search engine to be more powerful or complex than others, or for the more appealing or useful features to be what they are. But since most of the tagging is usually not accessible to the user when a book is displayed, it should be possible to run it on another application, even if it did not take full advantage of all the underlying tagging (this in fact happens with some STEP-compatible books). If the (admittedly) idealistic picture painted above were possible, people would immediately realize that what really makes the difference is not so much the text, but the program (but see this blog entry!). In fact, this is happening right now with "closed" standards. You may be able to find the same Bible or reference work in a number of packages, but that does not mean that you will make the most out of it no matter what program you use. There are programs that are objectively better than others. The subjective element lies in our needs, not in the software. To put it another way. No program is THE best. Some programs are the best for US (because of the way its features match our particular study or research needs). Having said that, I contend that some programs are (in abstract terms, if you like) better than the rest. But I am digressing ;-) Any discussion about standards seems to inevitably lead us to consider once again the matter of open standards and open scholarship. Tim mentions the OSIS initiative as a possible way to safeguard our investment in content. Since the Open Scripture Information Standard purports to be "a common format for many visions," I suppose it could equally well become "a common format for many viewers (read applications)". But content per se is not the only issue. The real advantage of electronic media is the retrieval and management of that content. There, I think, lies the real potential of Bible software. All other things being equal, there should be a number of value-added features and services based on which users could make a wise decision as to what program best suits their needs. So, yes, we want the texts to survive, but we also want the special electronic features to survive along with them. I hope this makes sense, even though some statements would need to be nuanced, no doubt. I simply haven't got the time to get into more detail right now. It was either this or nothing. But I will continue to read with interest your feedback as the discussion unfolds. Thank you all for your valuable insights.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 8, 2004 9:06 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Is Bible Software Short-lived?.

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