Holy Scrollers!

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  February 22, 2010

Missionary edition
Ming Siu first saw opportunities in e-Bible applications more than a year ago. A former investment banker, his volunteer CFO work at a non-denominational Silicon Valley church inspired him to marry his passions for tech business and Christianity. At the time, decent Bible apps were fetching nearly $30 (they've since dropped in price considerably), and, along with programmer friends, Siu sought to fill a need for an inexpensive, space-aged Good e-Book.

"Some of the pricey [e-Bibles] weren't even consistent with the look of other iPhone apps," says Siu, a founding partner in Tecarta, whose biblically oriented applications range in price from 99 cents to $7.99. Though his is a for-profit business, Siu claims to be goodwill hunting in the competitive jungle. "It was ridiculous — we knew that we could build something better in two weeks. We wound up developing one in four weeks that had integrated note-taking capabilities and was super fast. . . . Some guys out there are just in this to make money, but a lot of us also want to do something cool and help people."

Thanks to Siu and a select group of other entrepreneurial dogmatists, the next e-Bibles promise even more than an increased ability to live-chat about psalms and proverbs. In addition to consumers playing more active roles, with new options from Olive Tree, readers can cross-reference old maps with modern geography to see where historic Biblical landmarks might be today. That company is also working on video components, timelines, and word-study options for deciphering ancient derivations.

"We're basically trying to create the most dynamic e-books possible," says Drew Hanniger, president of Olive Tree, which — with a decade of relative experience and two of the top 10 most popular downloads — stands as the Microsoft of e-Bibles. "Bibles have a great referencing system that has been around since the fourth century, and that gives us an amazing ability to . . . jump between parts and connect these resources."

When it comes to designing books with a Jetsonian flair, the Bible has more than a few great advantages over every other text ever written. Unlike The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter, the New and Old Testaments belong to the public domain, which means anyone can use or publish them anywhere and anyhow. The Bible is also the best-selling book of all time, which makes for limitless marketing and networking opportunities. Whereas it's unlikely that a first-time novelist would be able to generate enough buzz to have people taking virtual notes on nearly every page of his work, right now it's a good bet that there are literally several hundred folks discussing John 3:16 on their iPhones.

Still, the Bible's greatest asset for e-book adaptation is its age-old annotation, and e-Bible developers have been inspired by operability. Users can switch between languages and translations because the Bible has been parsed the same way forever. (Trying to accomplish the same thing with, say, the unabridged James Patterson collection would be considerably more labor intensive.)

With no legal limitations and heavenly indexing capabilities, e-Bible makers have demonstrated exceptional creativity in manipulating content. On the lifechurch.tv Bible app, users can switch in real-time between 22 translations in 41 different languages. Furthermore, that program allows folks to host virtual Bible group meetings with friends across the planet. There are also silly bells and whistles; with the Patrick Franklin Touch Bible's Shake-A-Verse feature, one wiggle of the wrist randomly lands you anywhere from Genesis to Revelation.

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