Costas Stergiou, creator of In The Beginning Was The Word

Bible Software Review: By way of an introduction, please give us any personal information you'd like to share with our readers...

Costas Stergiou: My name is Costas Stergiou, I leave in Athens, Greece, married with 2 children and, above all, a member of the body of Christ (well, this last is the most distinctive feature I suppose). I work for a local telecom company and have been a programmer for about 10 years. I am the person behind the In the Beginning Was The Word software, which I develop in my non-working (and non-family) hours.

BSR: When did your company start, and why did you feel the need to set this project off?

CS:Well, there is not any company behind this effort. In The Beginning Was The Word software started as a simple proof-of-concept by a single person about 3 years ago, when I was trying to find an online version of the modern Greek Bible (well, I am Greek; studying the Greek text does not fall in the scholarly use for me). I remember I was discussing some theological issues with a friend and brother in Christ and wanted to look up some verses. I looked around to all free Bible software packages available, and although I found some very interesting ones, I just couldn't find one that would allow me to do the simplest thing: type a word in modern accented Greek and find it in the Bible. Well, it may sound a bit silly, but there really wasn't any such free software around. So the game started. I got an electronic text from the public domain and in a few days I made a small program that could read this text and search it properly. This is how it all began.

Actually, I never thought this would become an official program. When I finished adding all the small features I liked I just made a web-site and shared it with others. Today, "The Word" is the most widely used Bible software in Greece and it is used by many more people from other countries too (also non English speaking ones). The new version 3, coming very soon, will be a major upgrade that will fill all the missing functionality of version 2. I think that it will raise the standards of "what free software should be" much higher!

BSR: What is your current role in the company?

CS: I am the programmer, tester, designer, web master, and I play every other imaginable role at the same time. Well, to be honest there are several users of the program that have actually helped with several issues, but I am the only dedicated person on this project. I think that one of the reasons that I am alone in this effort is that I set very (private) high standards on the software. Actually, for every new feature I start by thinking, "What would I really like from the software that I cannot find anywhere else?", and then I usually proceed to develop almost the full list of my initial thoughts. The only drawback with this approach is that it takes time: more time than a commercial effort would allow, since there are many features that are used by very few users (if I were asked to create a commercial piece of software, it would certainly not contain all the details the program currently includes; but this is not my goal). At the moment, my main income comes from my secular job, so I am free to invest time in the program without thinking that I must hurry to get it done to get some money back.

BSR: When you look back, what would you identify as being the single greatest feat in the history of Bible software?

CS: Although I may be too young to properly answer this question (since my past experience in Bible software is not that long), I think it would be the ability to quickly search the Bible and annotate it with your comments.

To be honest, when I started using Bible software and looking through the commentaries, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that for the same verse, respected theologians would have a completely different exegesis (and stating this with undeniable certainty). I was a bit shaken to be honest. At the same time, I found out that most Bible software packages make it easy to see what others have to say, but make it more difficult to write your own comments! Well, this last thing should be one of the most important features and, I think, quite underestimated in most packages.

BSR: What segment of Bible software users do you consider to be your main target?

CS: The program is primarily targeted to people that want a fast and everyday tool to accompany their Bible studies. "The Word" aims to be one of the programs you add to you Start-up folder and it is always there to use. At the same time, "The Word" is a really powerful study tool to help you go much deeper in your studies. The complexity is hidden when you don't need it. It does not contain the wealth of resources found in other programs but I think it is the fastest way to do 95 per cent of what most people would want to do. Well, it is also free (although you would never guess that if you didn't know).

BSR: In your opinion, what are the three most salient features of your application?

CS: 1. The general feeling of speed, quality, ease-of-use and stability as you use it. You actually need to work on a program to understand this. When you start a program for the very first time, you don't worry how long it needs to startup or how long it takes to do something, you usually explore its features. But after a while, what you really want is a "tool" to do your job. I think we all end up using the software we use based on this one simple criterion: ease-of-use. Actually, many people who have really "used" the program cannot easily go back to something else. I could also refer to the search engine, customizable windows, layout, options, etc. but what is important is how all these features look and work. This does not come easily in software: many weeks and months have been invested to make "The Word" easier for the user to do what he wants. I think that more than half of the development time of "The Word" has been invested in making it fast and intuitive to use. This is not always obvious from the screenshots!

2. The investment of time and features in the personal notes area. As I said above, I think that the Bible study software should primarily facilitate writing down and organizing our own thoughts. Commentaries are good, but I expect Bible software to help me organize my own thoughts about different doctrines. We know that the Holy Spirit helps us accomplish that, and we should trust more in this promise of the Lord for it.

3. I think the "Clipboard monitor" function is one of the most interesting features (I think "The Word" is the first program to implement such a feature). With this function enabled, the program actually monitors the clipboard in the background. When it locates some text it quickly parses it and if it finds any verse references it pops up a window with the Bible text. As simple as this may sound, it is really an invaluable tool when reading texts from the Internet! You need to try it for 1-2 days and you will not be able to do without it. As you read a text, you just select the verse reference with your mouse (in your favorite program), right click and copy it. That's all.

BSR: If you had to recommend the use of Bible software to someone who has never been exposed to it before, how would you go about it?

CS: Well, it is like explaining to someone the benefits of using MS Word vs. writing a letter by hand; little can be said until you actually see and understand MS Word! (well, I am not sure my father would be persuaded anyway to stop hand-writing his letters). However, I think that reading your printed Bible cannot be replaced by any software. We are talking about two different things that are not interchangeable.

Organization of thoughts and notes is the primary advantage of computer assisted study, and of course the instant access to huge electronic libraries of commentaries and notes (although, as I explained above, this can also be confusing because of the wide range of interpretations from different theologians).

BSR: Why do you think people should consider using your software?

CS: Although I could say that it's free and they have nothing to lose trying it out, this is not what I believe; I don't design and write the software as a free package. Rather, I write it as though it was for sale! I never rationalize: "OK, it is free after all, what do you expect?". I envision and develop the program as if there was a big company behind me that demanded some high quality software and big revenues!

Having said that, I think that the program really stands out in the freeware arena, and it is the wealth of features, quality and ease of use that would make someone use it. Actually, most happy users are the ones that have just used it and realized exactly that. Also, I would refer to the fact that it properly uses non-English texts and is already translated in 6 languages (most packages out there aim for the English user; from the ground up, "The Word" aimed the Greek users and as it developed I decided to properly support non-English languages as well, in the interface and in the Bible texts area).

BSR: What is the primary use you make of your own software?

CS: Reading the Bible, searching through it, taking notes. What most people need for their everyday study. Actually, one could conclude this by checking "The Word" and seeing how simple and fast is to perform these tasks. I hope and pray that other people too will spend more time with the Bible and that "The Word" (or any other program) can help people advance in the knowledge of the Word of God.

BSR: Is there any feature lacking in Bible software in general that you would love to see implemented soon?

CS: I don't think I can give an answer here since the "needs" are really evolving with the software itself. I can only wish something that is not on the user perspective: a generic, accepted, open source encoding format for Bible resources. After having spent all this time looking for a standard, I have been very disappointed by the fact that there is not the slightest agreement on an open, general accepted standard for encoding Bible texts. Well, this is also the case for every other standard in computer industry that just reflects a generic problem (or maybe attitude).

BSR: Are there any specific plans to port the software to other platforms? (Mac, Linux, PDA...)

CS: Not at this moment. Although some people have asked this question, the unfortunate reality is that you actually need to rewrite your software for each platform, if you want it to have the quality and feel of a native application. So actually this would mean double investment in time, debugging, etc., which is only a dream for me today.

BSR: Besides English, is or will your software be available in other languages in the foreseeable future?

CS: The primary language of the software was/is Greek! The program is currently translated into 5 languages and there are another 5 being prepared at this moment. What is most important though is to have the program behave properly in all languages, not only displaying correctly. "The Word" is designed from the ground up as a Unicode application that can work properly in every language (well, this is the main reason it all started in the first place after all).

BSR: From your perspective, what should Bible software be heading for in the years to come?

CS: Users are the ones to answer this. I could only answer on behalf of "The Word", but this would not reflect the general "Bible software" industry trends.

BSR: Would you like to add or share anything not covered in the previous questions?

CS: At this moment I realize that "The Word" has become a project that requires more time investment if I really want to see it advance. My current life-style (normal job, family, etc.) really leaves me with little time to work on the program and this is something I am unhappy about. I am really thankful to God that He has allowed this effort to bring forth certain blessings to the people that have used it (especially Greek people who had no serious native-language alternative until now) and I would like to continue under the guidance of Him. My limited Christian experience has shown me that unless something is of God, there is no reason to pursuit it.

Some very big changes are underway in my life style which involve quitting my current job and moving away from my current residence; although I cannot say that this will be a total commitment to full-time work on "The Word", I do expect, under the guidance of God, to increase the overall effort in the progress of the software and also find an appropriate means of generating an income (through donations) that could possibly help sustain the everyday needs of my family. I would like to leave this to the hands of our Lord and be wise enough to listen to His guidance!

BSR: Thank you so much for your time!

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