Marvel is not the first publisher to distribute comics through the iPhone, but the fact that the biggest American comic publishing company is using this method of distribution is a pretty big deal, especially since they have their own digital service and are opting to utilize iTunes as well.
Many feel that this is the next step in the evolution of comic distribution, but to me it feels that it is not properly planned, and that customers are the ones that could end up paying the price. Hit the jump for some more thoughts about the deal, and the future of digital comics.
The Available Apps
Marvel's recent announcement of their decision to start distributing comics through the iTunes store revealed the fact that you could buy their comics through FOUR different applications: Comixology, iVerse, Panelfly, and Scrollmotion. Additionally, other companies have already started making headway in releasing digital comics in their own way, such as with Longbox.
The only problem is that none of these share a common file type, or even a common player (to my knowledge at least, stop me if I am wrong), so what you buy for one phone (the iPhone, for example) won't work if you decide to change it for another one. Even if you don't change phones, what you download in one app won't work with another one. If you can't see why this is not very good, maybe you can ask the people that bought HD DVD players, UMD movies for the PSP, or Zip Drives.
"We want to give the consumers the choice to decide what's best for them. Each software has a world of difference, and each company has a different approach. By going with multiple companies, we're letting the consumer decide."
Don't believe me? Some comics already available on the iTunes store won't play unless you have the 3.0 update of their OS, which you have to pay $9.99 to get. Theoretically (again, stop me if I am wrong) the opposite can also happen if these comics apps are not compatible with new updates on the iPhone.
What will happen with the content that has already been paid for? Would readers be able to read their content on other players? Probably not. And so that content could become useless.
The way to do digital comics the right way is to develop a system and a unified file type for every company to use so as to avoid the trappings I mentioned above. For example, you can play an mp3 file in your computer, your portable player, and as many compatible devices as there exist out there with rare exceptions. This is what the digital comic book initiative should aim for - not a system where it is every man for himself. The comic industry has the advantage of being a relatively small one, at least in comparison to the music, movie or gaming industry, so a consensus should be easier to achieve.
The argument I have heard is that iPhones are the "hot" thing in the market right now, and a great place to reach a bigger audience, but the number of people that have iPhones pales in comparison with the number that owns computers. Making the images fit and make them scrollable into a tiny three inch screen is a huge challenge that must be tackled on a issue-by-issue basis, making the process incredibly slow, a problem that is not as challenging in a regular computer, where the screen is exponentially bigger.
I think the main reason that the comic industry hasn't gone ahead with an iTunes-like service for personal computers is that they are afraid of the comics being shared on torrent sites and the like, the same thing that happens to the music and movie industry.
That's why, until now, Marvel's digital comic initiative didn't have the option to download comics - only stream-like material that could be viewed with an Internet connection through Marvel's website in their proprietary Flash viewer.
In this day and age, making something downloadable means that it will end up being shared by people. But here is the kicker (and I doubt many of you will be shocked by this): comics are already shared like that. Every week, a group of people buys and scans pretty much every comic published out there and they are shared by users all around the world.
The New Numbers
This article, for example, notes that sales on the music industry are not going down because of people downloading, but because they are spending that money on games and DVDs instead. This other article indicates that people that download music through filesharing are more likely to purchase digital content legally. And this more recent article shows that people that illegally download content spend more money on legally purchased music than people that don't. Simply put, fear of piracy is a moot point if it's already done on mass, looks better and has more versatility, quantity, timeliness and readability than your paid offering and all for free.
Of note, research hasn't been done on how this relates to comic sales, which I suspect has more to do with the relatively small size of the industry and complete lack of a proper online model, so it is hard to say how an easier way to illegally download comics would affect the industry at large, especially with how easy it already is.
In my humble opinion, comic fans are a reliable and fanatic bunch driven by a collector mentality and I don't think the majority of us would give up their comic buying habits in favor of illegally downloading because we know all too well the bitterness of having titles canceled because of low sales. The way that I see it is that, even if it is through illegal means, digitally downloadable comics could also bring in a larger audience, something this ailing industry desperately needs.
Stealing a page from the music industry, they should simply go with the same format and program, much like Winamp and Windows Media Player were originally used for pirated mp3s and are still used for digital downloads and legitimate digital files.
Feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments section or let us know what your thoughts on the whole digital movement for comics should entail.