Bobby Gruenewald, the Innovation Leader for YouVersion at LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma, said in an interview that the original idea for the project in 2006 was to build a Web version of the Bible in order to help people better engage with the book. The resulting website didn’t work as planned, but as they were getting ready to shut it down in early 2008, the mobile version started to pick up traffic as users began adopting smartphones like the iPhone.
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When Apple announced plans to open an App Store for third-party developers, YouVersion decided to join in, so it pulled together an app in time for the store’s opening on June 10, 2008. The app racked up 83,000 downloads in the first day, and YouVersion responded by pivoting to focus full-time on mobile apps. To date, YouVersion supports 500 versions of the Bible across 300 languages.
Oddly enough, I first came across the app a few years ago while playing Gun Bros with some friends. For a limited time, it was one of the apps available to download in order to earn in-game currency, before that type of advertising was discouraged by Apple. Since then, the app’s user experience has come a long way and I’ve since gotten rid of the other Bible apps I was using.
For many of us, the Bible is still very closely connected with the printed page. It was, after all, closely associated with the technical innovation of the printing press. I was curious how the move to a Bible app has changed the way readers interact with the book. Gruenewald pointed to daily reading plans as an area that has been improved, recounting the story of a 66-year-old man who had tried unsuccessfully to read the whole Bible in a year for 40 years before accomplishing the feat on YouVersion.
Gruenewald also noted that Bible apps have “fundamentally changed the social aspect” of reading the book. YouVersion sees roughly 200,000 shares per day, across a range of services, including Facebook, Twitter, SMS and email.
YouVersion has been met with some resistance from readers that are hesitant to read the Bible in app form, but Gruenewald views the app as supplementing, rather than replacing, the printed word. He also pointed out that some users consider the app “more sacred, only in the sense that it’s more integrated in their lives.”
YouVersion started out as entirely funded by Lifechurch.tv before donations started coming in for the project itself. Gruenewald estimates that the team will have spent $20 million on the development and promotion of the app. He added that there are no plans to monetize the app.
Another advantage to an app-based Bible is its relative freedom from geographical limitations. YouVersion has been downloaded and used in every single country, including areas where the Bible is banned. Countries have tended to be more lax about regulating app stores than they have other types of content.
“In a large part we’ve been accessible in parts of the world where a print bible would be challenging to get in,” Gruenewald said.
YouVersion is currently focused on mobile platforms, but its ultimate goal is to continue leveraging new technologies to drive engagement of the Bible. The team’s lead Android developer is a Glass explorer. The organization has yet to announce any formal plans to develop Bible Glassware, but it is playing with and looking at the device.
Upcoming improvements to the app include additional personalization and social sharing features. Specifically, the team is looking into how to let readers view and experience the Bible within the context of their trusted relationships. Gruenewald also said that YouVersion is looking into creating a more child-friendly version of the app.
The developer believes that 100 million is just a start and is aiming for an ambitious goal of 1 billion installs. Achieving that user base from Oklahoma takes outside help, and YouVersion is supported by hundreds of volunteers around the world.
“Oklahoma City is not known as [an app development] center,” Gruenewald noted. “We think that that’s kind of an interesting thing, we feel like it highlights how this thing is so much more than us.”
Of course, the fact that it’s working with the best-selling book in history works to its advantage too.
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