WORDsearch, LifeWay, and the Future of Bible Study Software

It’s been a couple of months now since the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, LifeWay, announced that they had gotten into the Bible Study Software publishing market by buying WORDsearch – a sale that included QuickVerse, which had just been bought by WORDsearch a couple months earlier. I wasn’t thrilled by either of these announcements (especially the second one), and the passing of time has not made me feel much better.

As I mention in the summary of my analysis of QuickVerse, I think the sale to WORDsearch was a good thing overall for QuickVerse users: QuickVerse didn’t appear to have a future as an independent platform, WORDsearch has a better overall tool set, had a good portion of QV’s STEP resources already available in their own CROSS format, and had in place some  established processes to convert from the STEP platform to CROSS. It would also mean a significantly enlarged base of potential customers for CROSS resources, which should have increased revenue for WS without increasing their costs, while providing a much wider selection of resources for legacy QuickVerse users. Sounds like a win-win, and it is, but my chief complaint about WORDsearch over the past few years has been what I’ve perceived as an over-emphasis on expanding markets, at the expense of putting some finishing, professional touches on a toolset that is very interesting, but under-developed. This move seemed to all about libraries, not toolsets.

The LifeWay purchase opens up an entirely different can of worms, as WORDsearch now effectively becomes a denominational Bible study platform – and at that, a denomination not known for their pluralism (pretty ironic, actually, given the role of Baptists in the codification of religious pluralism in the United States). There’s no way to tell at this point how things will play out, in terms of which resources will and will not be made available by LifeWay for the WORDsearch platform going forward.

I wish I were more optimistic than I am that the Bible study platform will not be used as a football for denominational politics and bigfooting. I can’t help but be reminded of the waste that was Zondervan’s development of Pradis as a tool for their own works. The circumstances are quite different in several ways, but I think there may be some real analogy in terms of the danger (from a user/student/consumer perspective) of combining the toolset and the e-book publishing platform under a single, proprietary copyright.

I’m glad LifeWay wants to get into the e-book publishing business for Bible Study software, I just wish people who have invested in the software tools required to utilize those resources weren’t financially locked into LifeWay as a publisher now. LifeWay should be able to publish what they want – and only what they want – and users should be able to use the tools they have invested in to work with resources published by various publishing houses, as they see fit. Likewise, I wish LifeWay were able to produce e-books that were capable of being used on the broadest set of software tools (readers, search tools, content aggregators, indexers, virtual annotation tools, etc.).

The software/publishing houses don’t want to hear this, but I am more and more convinced that publishers, content owners, developers, and users of Bible Study tools & resources would all be much better served if an e-book standard could be developed – open source, I say, and using a plug-in framework similar to Logos’ data type components. In simple terms, here is how I see everyone benefiting from an industry-wide agreement:

  1. Users would only have to license an e-book once, and could then use it with anybody’s toolset – and it’s viability over an extended period of time would be guaranteed.
  2. Publishers would have the broadest possible potential customer base to sell to.
  3. Copyright owners would be free to license to a single publisher if they prefer (or not!), without compromising potential market share.
  4. Developers would be free to focus on quality tool development, differentiating themselves by functionality, usability, and ability to keep up with “data types” established by publishers, which would be available on a level playing field.

I’m convinced that an e-book standard is coming – whether from Amazon, Google, or somewhere else, and that users are going to get fed up with having to “buy” books several times just to keep using them in a changing software landscape. The question is whether the Bible Study software community can get out in front of the emerging standard to ensure it is rich enough to support the rather elaborate requirements of modern, computerized Bible study, or if they will squabble to the end, leaving us with standards developed by and for the entertainment establishment.