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Let there be bytes: Software firm brings interactivity to Bible

By Erik Lacitis

The Seattle Times

Published: Saturday, March 31 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Bob Pritchett, right, president and CEO of Logos Bible Software, works with his brother, Dan, who is executive vice president. Its main product, Logos 4, compiles dozens of versions of the Bible.

Erika Schultz, Mct

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — It might come as a surprise to some that this city of 81,000, known more for banning plastic bags than as a center of religion, is headquarters to the world's leading producer of Bible software.

Last year, Logos Bible Software, which occupies three buildings downtown and employs about 250 people, had sales of more than $35 million. Its main product, Logos 4, compiles dozens of versions of the most printed book in history and searches through hundreds of reference books.

Type in "holiness," promises the company, and you'll get "more than 100,000 hits for 'holiness' in less than a second."

Christianity has embraced the digital age with a passion.

(As has Islam; islamicfinder.org claims more than 10 million downloads worldwide of its free software that automatically calls out for prayer five times a day.)

"The Christian community has always been out in the front of getting stuff on new technology platforms," said Bob Pritchett, a 40-year-old former Microsoft employee who is president and CEO of Logos.

"There was the Gutenberg Bible (around 1450). When radio was introduced, you had people preaching on radio the next week."

The software is chock-full of enticements for techies. For example, it shows you the original Greek or Hebrew in which the text was written, complete with audio on how to pronounce those ancient words. And it zooms in on maps and photos of historical sites.

Pastors account for a fifth of sales, Pritchett said. Tap, tap, and the software finds just the right quotation to use in a sermon.

But it is individuals looking to learn more about the Bible on their own who account for two-thirds of sales, Pritchett said.

Logos 4 has nine editions, starting at $149.95 to $4,290 ("more than 1,600 books worth almost $30,000.00 in print!"). Sometimes the work isn't very high-tech. Some older texts with typefaces that don't scan well are typed in manually by contract workers in India.

The unchurched might ask why someone would want to study the Bible to such an extent — literally line by line.

Said professor Jo-Ann Badley of the Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, "Why do gardeners pore over seed catalogs, read and reread descriptions of kinds of carrots, thinking about choosing the right one for their garden? Why do sports fans read pages of the sports section each day, or memorize the statistics of hits from left-handed pitchers vs. from right-handed pitchers? If you study the Bible carefully, it helps make sense of your world."

She said reading Biblical text in the original Hebrew (Old Testament) or Greek (New Testament) allows students to better understand the meaning of passages. The problem is, Badley said, seminary students would have to spend two years studying the language. The software cuts that to a few clicks.

"There are things that don't translate easily," Badley said. "If you try and read Shakespeare as he wrote it 500 years ago, the English is substantially different. One Hebrew language professor I know says that reading the Bible in an English translation is like kissing your spouse through waxed paper. Maybe people use Logos to cut some holes in the waxed paper."

The reason Logos ended up in the Pacific Northwest is the same as for a lot of startups: Microsoft.

It certainly wasn't because it's a religious hot spot. According to a 2008 Gallup Poll, Washington is the sixth least-religious state in the country. The honor of least religious belongs to Vermont.

Logos was started in 1991 by two Microsoft employees, Pritchett and Kiernon Reiniger, who met at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Wash. Reiniger parted ways with Logos in 1998 to join a dot-com.

In addition to the Bible, they had in common a love for writing computer programs.

Pritchett started when he was 8 and growing up in Cherry Hill, N.J. His dad brought home the legendary Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80, one of the first home computers, with a minuscule memory by today's standards.

But, Bob Pritchett remembers in a company history, "This was the coolest thing — a machine you could program to do anything you wanted."

By the time he was in a high school — growing up in a religious family, he was attending The King's Christian School — Pritchett was designing software and selling it to Fortune 500 companies.

By his junior year, he had earned $4,000 — enough to buy a car, and more computers.

"I read The Wall Street Journal every day. I didn't like high school. I was interested in business and entrepreneurship," Pritchett said.

It was while in high school that he also wrote a free program that searched the Bible in a computer bulletin-board system. Pritchett said his program was better than what had been used previously.

But, he said, "It was still a very simple tool. It didn't live up to my vision of a great Bible software package."

Teaming up with Reiniger allowed Pritchett to work again on a Bible program.

Back then in 1991, Pritchett and Reiniger were both single, and, well, computer geeks. They did computer stuff at their Microsoft day jobs, and then continued evenings and weekends on the Bible software.

That year they also brought in Pritchett's dad, Dale Pritchett, who had sales experience, to promote the new product. They decided to name the software Logos, a word of Greek origin, which means the word of God incarnate in Jesus.

They ran an ad in a Christian magazine, selling the software, which came in floppies, for $159. They got six orders and decided to press ahead.

They quit Microsoft, raised $120,000 and rented an 800-square-foot office in Kirkland, Wash.

First year sales in 1992 totaled $350,000, mostly through Christian book stores.

Dale Pritchett needed to move from New Jersey to Washington state to help his son with the business. His only condition was that he wasn't moving to a suburb. So Oak Harbor, Wash., it was.

But eventually, Bob Pritchett said, that little town turned out to be a little too isolated.

"Bellingham was the next closest town with a Costco," Pritchett said. That was handy, as, in the Microsoft tradition, Logos employees get for free all the Diet Coke, other sodas and bottled water they want.

Plus, Pritchett adds, Western Washington University offers a ready pool of prospective employees. He said Seattle has too many traffic problems and high housing costs.

The company touts its employee perks, such as letting most salaried employees select their own sick days, holidays and vacation time (which used to be three weeks).

Pritchett said the new vacation policy has been in effect for less than a year, and "I don't see a lot of difference" in how much time employees are taking off.

At the same time, Pritchett is also the boss who in 2006 wrote a business-advice book called "Fire Someone Today." The title refers to what sometimes a boss has to do.

Pritchett lists the kinds of people who need to go: Whiners, slackers, incompetents, troublemakers, misfits and those who are superfluous.

Would Jesus write a book titled, "Fire Someone Today"?

Pritchett answered, "It's a provocative title. But we live in the real world. That's how God set it up. Sometimes people are in the right place. Sometimes they're in the wrong place."

The market around Bibles certainly is huge, although sales figures are hard to peg because millions are given away for free. Gideons International says that since 1908, it has distributed for free more than 1.7 billion Bibles, nearly 79 million just last year.

Logos keeps finding new ways to place the Bible in social media.

Another Logos product called "Proclaim" lets parishioners tap away on their smartphones or tablets as the pastor is preaching.

The pastor, of course, has a huge screen behind him that illustrates his sermon.

"Let's say I'm referencing something in a Greek or Hebrew word that's tied to a website. I can send a 'hot link' if people want to dig a little deeper," said Pastor Rick Bulman of New Hope Foursquare Church in Bellingham. "It's pretty remarkable. It makes learning the Bible fun and interactive."

These days, Logos is in the beta phase of a new platform called "Faithlife," a kind of Facebook for connecting "with your church, friends and Christian leaders online."

Pritchett was asked for any particular Bibles passages that would be pertinent to entrepreneurs. He emailed back several, including Proverbs 22:4.

"The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life."

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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