Tribal Technology

Some of the product decisions Apple has made in the last decade have had a positive, though largely unintended, effect 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. Yet they are now using technology influenced by Apple.

What the iPod Meant to the Church

Fifteen years ago, the dominant medium for music and audio was the CD. Then MP3 ripping technology came along, and we started converting all of our CDs to MP3s on our computer (or, if you were a sinner in the 1990s, you downloaded them from Napster).

When the first MP3 players came on the market, the storage capacity was low: only around 128 megabytes of memory. You had to choose which 25 songs you wanted to listen to at one time.

Out of the blue came the iPod. It had a $400 price tag and a radical new interface. As Apple is fond of proclaiming, it changed everything. But the significance of the iPod wasn’t its click wheel. The iPod was revolutionary because it made gigabytes the new norm for storage capacities. Surprisingly, this mattered to the Church.

There are many cultures without a written language. Other impoverished countries have high illiteracy rates among the poor. It costs millions of dollars to bring in a team that can create a written language out of spoken words, translate the Bible into that newly created standard, and then teach everyone to read it.

The obvious solution was to translate directly into spoken words and create audio versions of the Scriptures. The problem was that doing so required dozens of CDs and a large playback device.

The iPod made it possible to carry solar-powered audio Bibles in a backpack across the Amazon, the African plains, or the mountains of East Asia. Missionaries could hand a device 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!

Next came the iPhone, with its $600 price tag and single-button interface. It too was both loved and ridiculed around the tech world. Though its interface was important for the future of phone design, the iPhone had a longer-term legacy: 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.

The persecuted Church needed 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 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.

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 the EPUB format for e-books that changed 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 properly on small devices like a cell phone. Now that Apple has adopted EPUB (along with Barnes and Noble’s Nook), it is becoming a standard for any e-reader device.

Recently I met with members of the Digital Bible Society. DBS specializes in collecting and distributing Bibles and theological material in closed countries. They distributed Chinese language materials 10 years ago on tens of thousands of CDs.

Today the team at DBS prepares gigabytes of the Bible, Christian books, and videos like the Jesus film, and puts them on e-readers and microSD chips. Today’s Bible “distributor” can hide a microSD chip in a sock, bringing biblical material into highly dangerous countries.

When I met with DBS and some other ministries, they showed me an incredible array of James Bond-like devices that people around the world are using to smuggle these materials to 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.” I agree.1


  1. Adapted from Copyright 2011. Used with permission. []

John Dyer serves as the Director of of Web Development for Dallas Theological Seminary and lives near Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Amber, and two children, Benjamin and Rebecca. He has written on technology and faith for Christianity Today and Collide Magazine. His first book, From the Garden to the City, was released August 1, 2011.