16 September 2010

Is e-Sword dead?

Mitchell Powell wrote "You heard it here first, folks. E-Sword is dead." in his blog ve'al timkor — ואל־תמכר on 15 September 2010).

He is not the first person to make that statement. Nor will he be the last.

I think that the first claim to that effect was made by the developer of Q-WordSpeak. More recently I've seen it used by users of TheWord.

It is a topic I broached on in:
* Selecting Bible Study Software;
* On Selecting Bible Study Software;
* The Death of Bible Study Software;
* My talk at BibleTech 2010 The Ecology of e-Sword;

Pocket e-Sword was the edition for Pocket PC 2003, Windows CE, and Windows Mobile 6.0.

e-Sword Live! was created for users of other platforms. The theory is that everybody would always have an available Internet Connection.

Rick has publicly stated that there will not be a WinMo 7 version of e-Sword, or Pocket e-Sword. He also announced on 12 December 2009, that further development of Pocket e-Sword would cease as of that day. All official support was also scheduled to cease 12 December 2009. All of the commercially distributed resources were pulled from the market on 31 December 2009. Since January 2009, at least half a dozen other organizations that create Bible Study Software have announced, either formally, or informally, officially, or unofficially, that development on their Windows Mobile platform offering had ceased.

e-Sword began life as a Bible Study Program for new Christians that did not know how to use a computer. The original axioms were:
* If a new Christian did not see the point of a feature, or of a function, then e-Sword would not offer that capability;
* If a non-computer user could not figure out how to do something, without consulting a manual, then e-Sword would not offer that capability;

Over time, things change. e-Sword has become far more complicated. Users are doing things with e-Sword that Rick never envisioned it being used for. Rick added features and functions to empower those "power users".

The future for e-Sword, is, at best, ambiguous.

e-Sword is a software program that one should grow out of. It is a program that should no longer meet one's needs, because one is no longer a new Christian that can only take milk. It is very easy for a user to mistake their change in software requirements, with a sense that e-Sword is dead.

For new Christians, e-Sword still remains one of the best offerings out there.

The challenge for e-Sword is whether it is to maintain its commitment to features and functions for new Christians, or whether to also offer more advanced features. There are at least half a dozen features, and components that could be added to e-Sword, that would be congruent with the original axioms of e-Sword development, and also enhance its functionality for "power users.

Libronix is still committed to its original market --- seminarians and clergy. At the same time, it has embarked on embracing the laity: the intermediate to mature Christian. With its offerings for the iPhone/iPad/iPod and Android, Libronix is well positioned to also engage the new Christian market. (Note: As of 20100918, the Android app is not publicly available. More precisely, only a very few people within the firm have a copy of it.)

Olive Tree is committed to the mobile market. Give them another year or two for development, and their apps should contain the same functionality as Libronix does. The issue Olive Tree will be facing is resources.

The Sword Project is the only FLOSS Bible Study Software to gain traction. Their major stumbling point is resources. Or, more precisely, the lack of them.
The nature of FLOSS is that since everybody has access to the source code, anybody can contribute code that provides functionality, features, or capabilities that they think the program lacks. As such, the various front ends will, in theory, eventually provide the same capability as Libronix currently does.

Laridian is committed to the mobile market. Their focus tends to be on the "New Christian" to "Intermediate Christian" market. I'm not sure what will happen to them when Libronix gets more mobile apps. It should remain a player, but.

Those are the only organizations that develop Bible Study Software, whose future can be considered to be "safe". The only players that will survive are those that offer their products on multiple platforms, and whose products can be easily synchronized between platforms.

e-Sword is not on that list, because it is available for only one platform --- Windows.
Accordance is not on that list, because it is available for only one platform --- Mac OS X.
TheWord is not on that list, because it is available for only one platform --- Windows.

Yes, I know that the software can, in theory, be run on other platforms, if one wants to install the prerequisite emulation software. Emulation software is an iffy proposition that provides for a temporary solution. A permanent solution requires the software to run as a native program, in the native environment. Not masquerades of 64 bit Win7 as 32bit Win7. No usage of WINE, or CrossOver. No usage of Parallels.

The closest Rick has come to saying that e-Sword will not be ported to other platforms, is in pointing users of other platforms to e-Sword Live!. He also points current users of e-Sword on Windows to that website. The original intent of e-Sword Live! was to be a Web 2.0 edition of e-Sword.

The future for e-Sword is ambiguous.

For the last four or five years, Rick has not made any public announcements about changes to e-Sword, until after the version with the changes was released. The few private statements he has made, have been in nature of the usefulness of the feature to the "typical" e-Sword user.

e-Sword Resource Format Specification 2 freed e-Sword from the restraints imposed by Microsoft. Most of the changes make it much simpler to migrate e-Sword to other platforms. The restraints here are:
* Financial cost of the hardware to develop and test the program on;
* Financial cost of acquiring the appropriate tool chain;
* Time cost of learning to use the appropriate tool chain;

The challenge and future of Bible Software in a Mobile World is one approach to cross platform development;
Beyond Mobility is a different approach to cross platform development;

What people tend to forget is that e-Sword is a very small operation. Between eStudySource and e-Sword, Inc, I doubt that there are more than four people who are paid --- including independent contractors and part time employees.

Possible Futures:

* e-Sword remains in Windows, and dies when either Microsoft, or Windows dies;
* e-Sword goes cross-platform, as a closed source program;
* e-Sword becomes an open source program;
* e-Sword clones appear;

Personally, I think that e-Sword will become cross-platform. Whether that will happen first on mobile devices, or other desktops is something I do not know. If you write something for the iPhone/iPad/iPod, you might as well also port it to Mac OS X. If you write something for Android, you might as well as port it to both *Nix, and Symbian.

Commercially distributed closed source software can be successful on *Nix, if it is sigificantly better than the competition. Gratis closed source software, that is not FLOSS, can be successful on *Nix, but only if it is better than the FLOSS competition. In both instances, it is the user that defines, and quantifies "better".

As an open source program, a major issue is being able to retain the right to use, and distribute resources for which royalties are currently payable. Several organizations that currently permit resources to be distributed in e-Sword format, will not allow their resources to be distributed for FLOSS programs.

Clones of e-Sword have been around since at least 2002. Some of those clones could utilize e-Sword resources. Some of those clones could not. With the changes in e-Sword Resource Format Specification 2, clones will not, in theory at least, be able to utilize official e-Sword resources. That won't negate the ability to utilize the thousands of user created e-Sword resources out there. Whether or not the absence of those thirty five commercially distributed resources, and the gratis official resources will make a difference to the clone coders, is something that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, use e-Sword, and recognize when your Bible Study has grown beyond the capabilities and functions that e-Sword was designed for.


Jon Morgan said...

While Sword application developers can theoretically add any functionality, in practice I haven't seen any evidence that any such software (including BPBible) is likely to add some major important functionality. A more frequent factor is apologies for not getting much done and not being where they would want to be (and again, I am included in this list). Things that are partially or largely data-related, not just code related, seem even less likely to be done (example: Logos Controlled Vocabulary).

To my mind resources have always been the biggest issue with SWORD. As you mention, being FLOSS means it will be unlikely to get much easier.

Synchronisation (which you mentioned) is going to be another big factor. It is not always easy to transfer things between different SWORD desktop applications (or even the same application on a different platform). Things like synchronising to iPhone are unlikely to happen any time soon (though I'm sure they have been asked for). Talks attempting to establish standards have always broken down with disagreements as to what should be included and what not [note that here I'm talking about user notes. SWORD modules are usually able to be used in any application - with the exception of alternate versification and RTF modules].

I think, like e-Sword and the Word, SWORD software will always retain some interest from people who like things to be free. I think a fair percentage of people not using English as a primary language tend to gravitate to it as well for some reason. However, I haven't seen a lot which would suggest that it will become more important than it is now, and the choice of applications that is always touted as an advantage could become a heavy weight around its neck.

Jonathon said...

A lot of my thinking about the long term viability of _The Sword Project_ is from _The Cathedral and the Bazaar_.

It is much easier for a programmer to add "missing functionality" to one of the thirty something different front ends that TSP has, than waiting for Rick (e-Sword) or Costas (The Word) or Craig (Laridian) or Steve (Olive Tree) to implement it. Or to wait for the program to be ported to a new platform.

Jon Morgan said...

I'm aware of the Cathedral and the Bazaar (and I'm also aware the Cathedral developed Windows has many more users than the Bazaar developed Linux, and doesn't look to be going away soon). In some ways I find development on TSP like a cathedral, not a bazaar, as there are a number of tasks that are only done by a few official CrossWire members, and I and others have observed in years of following the lists that it seems to have a fairly high barrier of entry to new developers, though whether intentionally or not I cannot tell.

I definitely think TSP has a future, because there are still a few significant niches that it is apparently serving better than any other software around, and because it can be changed by anyone. I'm just not sure FLOSS Bible software attracts as much lasting developer interest as other FLOSS software (not sure why), and most of the frontends are teams of one or a few active developers rather than the many eyes prescribed by Cathedral and Bazaar.

I suppose my optimism about its future to some extent fluctuates depending on the amount of time I myself have been able to spend on it, and that has not been much time for quite a while.