Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Apple iPad, Comics & You

Yesterday, Apple announced their long rumoured and newest product, the tablet PC known as the iPad.  Even the earliest rumours for this product led many to ponder the implications such a device would have on the comic industry and how people buy and read comics, possibly even leading to the millions of Mac/iPod/iPhone users being introduced to comics when/if the product ever came to light.  Well, the light has been cast on the iPad.  Hit the jump for my thoughts on it and how it affects the way you read comics.

What is the iPad?

Size comparison: iPhone -> Kindle -> iPad

Before we start, this being a comic book based blog, I'm going to assume not everyone lives and breathes tech news or follows every odd press conference.  Sure, Apple is the king of hype and advertising, but someone may have missed the news or only vaguely understands what the iPad is. 

Simply put, the iPad, for all intents and purposes, is just a bigger iPhone.  To expand on that a bit, the iPad is a tablet PC, which will function much like an iPod Touch or iPhone except with a 10" screen.  You can listen to music, surf the web with Wi-Fi (or spring for the significantly more expensive 3G versions), watch movies, play games and do just about everything you'd imagine with a tablet sized computer. 

As I'm only going to address the comic book related applications of the iPad, if you're interested in all the specs, hardware, software, first impressions, etc, this post over at Gizmodo should answer all of your questions and more. 

Comic Books & The iPad

Mock-Up of Uncanny X-Men on the then rumoured iPad

In theory, the iPad, and the slew of alternatives in the pipes, has a lot of potential for changing the comic book industry.  Currently, there are multiple comic book related apps available for the iPhone that can be ported over to the iPad at launch.  These include the likes of comiXology and Robot Comics, among others. 

Furthermore, this onslaught of new tablet PCs, assuming they catch on, will literally force Marvel and DC, as well as every other major publisher, to get their digital acts together and change the way they deliver comics digitally. 

In theory, the iPad is the perfect place to begin this new change.  However, there are many problems associated with the iPad that the press conferences and initial wave of hype will not clue you in on.  I outline these problems below.


 Pricing for different iPad models

Simply put, the iPad, and likely other upcoming alternatives, is too expensive a purchase strictly for comic viewing.  The market is extremely small in the grand scheme of things (recall that our top selling comics often times do not even crack 100,000 units sold) and the number of comic readers that are willing to shell out a minimum of $499 for an iPad will not be a large enough market to drastically alter how comic companies do business.  There is potential for new users, but, in all honesty, nothing significant at this point in time. 

Want a fully functional version with actual space (if you consider 64GB a lot for some reason) and 3G?  That'll set you back $829 and you'll also need to sign up with AT&T (in America, Canada is getting the run around like we did with the iPhone launch) for $29.99 a month for unlimited data transfers. These are all US prices, for reference.

Space Issues

The low end model is 16GB.  16GB for a $499 laptop alternative.  On a phone or mp3 player, like the iPod and iPhone, this is actually pretty good.  You aren't really using it for anything other than music, the internet and occasional videos.  With a 10" tablet designed to replace/compete with a netbook (those cheap, 10" laptops), many of which clock in at under $300 and have a minimum of 160GB of space, that is absolutely tiny. 

You are supposedly going to be watching movies, playing games, listening to music and, hopefully, reading comics on this thing.  Based on torrent listings for comic books, they clock in at about 15MB per issue.  Not terribly large and could get you about 1000 comics on the 16GB model. 

However, you aren't using this only as a comic book reader. Add your mp3s, which can number in the 100s or even 1000s for most people, videos (anywhere from MBs to DVD quality files measuring in GBs), games (similar in sizes to videos) and everything else you'd like to do on this tablet and you are looking at some serious space issues. 

The final nail in the coffin is that this is flash memory with a finite number of writes to the harddrive and there's not a lot to love about the space of this tablet. 

One App At A Time

As of this writing, the sad truth is that the iPad does not allow multi-tasking.  What this means is you cannot play music and read comics at the same time.  You can't have Twitter open and read comics.  You can't switch between the internet and whatever comic reader you end up using.  You can use one app at a time and that's it. 

While this doesn't impact comic reading directly, it's a major problem that will restrict adoption of the iPad compared to a fully functional netbook or the alternative tablets in the works (the previously announced HP Slate from HP that was shown running Windows 7 springs to mind).

No Flash (or Other Unapproved Software)

As Apple endorses a closed system policy, that means the iPad will not have many of the luxaries associated with typical PCs, primarily virtual machines like Flash.  If you don't really pay attention to all the technology related things you use and just let Firefox tell you what you need and install it, this means no Flash or AIR based websites, apps or games for you.  

In terms of comics, both Marvel and Zuda use Flash based viewers.  That means you aren't viewing those, barring eventual iPad versions of each.  I know Marvel has alternative apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch and even a few comics appear on the iTunes store, though they appear to be for individual issues at $0.99 each and does not include their entire library like the Flash based web version. 

These companies have invested significantly in their online strategies (even though I disagree with how they've implemented them) and they won't be going out of their way to create a new system just for the iPad.  There will be apps, as I mentioned above, shoehorning them in through 3rd Parties, but the lack of Flash and the closed system and draconian app store policies will only prove barriers for entry to the Big Two. 


If you have a netbook or laptop, you know the hassle of lugging it around.  You need a backpack or manpurse to carry it.  The iPad, for all its shiny Apple polish, is in the same boat with the exception that it is significantly less durable and easier to drop with the awkward need to prop it up and inability to sit it comfortably on your lap like a laptop.  If this was a MacBook Air-like super thin, clam shell (think Nintendo DS) design that would be truly portable, I'd be all over it.  A bigger, thicker iPhone that requires a carrying case and is anything but portable is not an improvement.  I'm not even going to bother explaining how many adapters and other utitlities you'll need to bring along for the ride, such as a USB adapter, keyboard, stand, etc.

Marvel and DC Hate Digital Comics

Sure, Marvel has a digital service in place, but both they and DC have shown they have little clue as to how to get into the digital marketplace with DC's complete lack of a digital solution and Marvel's subscription based service (ie: you don't own what you pay for).  It's a good start for Marvel, by post-Napster/late 90's standards, but completely inadequate in the post-iTunes era of digital service models. 

And, as sad as it is to say, Marvel and DC are comics based on output and sales.  Sure, we all love our Atomic Robo, Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, but the fact is, Marvel and DC dictate how the market evolves.  If they continue to only dip their toes in the digital pool, there's little hope for comics taking off on an iPad or alternative tablets. 

The primary reason for this, I believe, is that, like the music and movie industry, they do not want to alienate or outright cut out their retail stores, in this case the direct market (aka comic shops).  Marvel and DC go digital, people stop going to comic shops, shops close, their target audience is now fractured with some digital and many non-digital adopters left out in the cold. It's a burning the candle at both ends possibility or paradigm shift for the comic industry and both companies are unsure of how they want to proceed.  At least, that's what I think is happening.  It's the only way to explain the perplexing moves, or lack thereof, from both companies' digital strategies.


As you can probably tell, I'm not sold on the iPad, especially in regards to comics.  It's likely going to be a fantastic product, but its target audience is both phone and netbook PC users.  They already sold a bazillion iPhones and netbooks are all sub-$300 with none of the numerous negatives of the iPad. 

Hell, Google is priming a netbook browser-based operating system, Chromium OS, that will do more for netbooks and offer far more options than the iPad in terms of functionality and space at a cheaper price (you could still buy the phone of your choice and come out with more for your money than a single iPad), though many have concerns over its 'browser is the operative system' design, but the point is that a netbook + phone combo is superior in every way to the iPad at this point in time.

Getting back to comics, though, is there potential for the iPad and other tablets to change how we read comics? Yes.  However, the same potential, and more, can be found on a product that has penetrated every facet of our lives and still remains untapped, one that came before iPods and iPhones, namely the computer.  A mobile product that costs more than my self-made, Crysis-playing computer will not change the comic industry on its own. 

Until either Marvel or DC decide to reach out to the home computer market, no amount of iPods, iPhones or iPads will change the way comics are viewed.  Comics will be available for the iPad.  People will buy it.  People will love it.  They may even pull in a few new readers with the novelty of it.  However, don't cancel your pull lists at the local shop just yet.  Based on the current digital adoption of the Big Two, you won't be getting your weekly haul online for at least another 5, if not more, years.  But hey, while the 1st iteration of the iPad won't change how you read comics, the 5th or 6th just might. Until then, I'll savour my weekly trip to the ol' brick and mortar shop.

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Kevin said...

Great article. I was going to write up something similar but you summed up my opinion on the iPad. If we see a comic company go digital it will be Marvel first. DC has always been hesitant to use the Internet to their advantage, they just put out the Source blog last year. And Marvel is more the trend setter in the comic book industry with this type of stuff so they will probably be the first ones out. But I am going to guess new issues of comics won't be going digital until sometime next year because of it being two different systems of publishing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, but I think your view of the home computer market is a little short sighted. Digital versions of books didn't start gaining momentum until specialized devices were produced for their consumption. Comics don't have the same readership, so a dedicated device is out of the question. However, I wouldn't be surprised if comic publishers feel safer entering the market with tablet products, especially with heavily restricted markets like Apple supplies.

Eric Rupe said...

As far as the future digital market place is concerned, I don't think Marvel or DC will have a large role to play in shaping it. They are too invested in the Direct Market, they make up a combined 80% of it, to really make the big leaps and innovations. I see smaller companies like Dark Horse, Image, Boom!, or Red 5, either together or individually, making the efforts to expand that market since the DM has very little to offer them because it is so dominated by Marvel and DC. This is not to say they'll abandon the DM but digital comics are probably going to be more of a priority to them given their smaller market share.

Personally, I've always seen digital comics not as a new way to read comics but a new way to attract new readers. There are plenty of people interested in reading comics who don't particularly care about Marvel or DC - just see manga or webcomics. I think those potential readers are the ones that the transition to digital comics will benefit the most since they would be exposed to material that would be hard to find in the DM.

Brandon Whaley said...

The iPad really doesn't have much of a market anywhere, comics or not. Poor digital distribution is the nail in the comic coffin. Locked down applications, lack of multitasking, no Flash support (don't say HTML5, it won't be fully realized for another 10 years or so) really place this into the "Apple hardcore" demographic and nowhere else.

Klep said...

I'm kind of cool on the iPad right now, after being initially enthused. If the multitasking in iPhone OS 4.0 works out for the iPad, and if Hulu develops a way for me to watch stuff on it, I'll probably get back on the bandwagon. I would also really desire some way to have external storage, so that i could get around the relatively small internal drive limitations as desired.

I want to like this product, I really do. It's just not there yet.

Steven said...

This product is more revolutionary in that you will be seeing similar products coming out from other companies with different operating systems. For example a web-os or android enabled tablet would be able to multi-task and use Flash and other 3rd party apps.

As far as Marvel and digital comics go. If someone involved with Apple makes them any sort of priority as far as a commodity that can be sold on this machine then I think Marvel will quickly change their way of doing things to fit Apple.

Marvel is owned by Disney. Steve Jobs is the major shareholder of Disney stock.

btownlegend said...

people are already bit torrenting issues everyday.

Ivan said...

Absolutely not interested. I also never got an iPhone.

Kirk Warren said...

@Anonymous - Most people prefer to read books in bed/on the sofa or take on the bus and various other locales. They are also an undertaking in that they are not easily digested and require hours or sometimes days to read through completely. Text, especially to the extent that a novel or book features, is notoriously hard on the eyes when focusing on for excessive lengths of time on lcds and other monitors. Its the main reason for the e-ink used in Kindles and other e-readers.

As such, books, while freely available online (many classics are past copyright protection/in public fair use and can be found on Project Gutenberg), never really caught on on computers due to that eye strain.

While you may use a computer for gaming or surfing the web for hours at a time with no problem, you are not specifically looking at a wall of text for that extended period of time. Graphics and other things help reduce the strain due to less need to focus directly on the screen.

Comics, however, are a visual medium. Yes, there are words, but theres also pretty pictures to break up the monotony and let you shift focus. They are also, typically, read in under 5 minutes. You can read a few and leave the computer with little hassel. You could even multitask between pages while the same thing with a novel is harder to find your place unless its the start of a chapter.

As such, I dont think its fair to compare it to books requiring e-readers to finally make the jump to digital. Comics are much similar to mp3s and video and would make greater strides into the home PC market before dedicated devices. That's not to say the iPad and other tablets wont lead to a digital movement in comics, but i don't see it really taking off without a solid initiative by the Big 2, which is not yet set to happen.

@Steven - It's not really all that revolutionary. HP announced the HP Slate a while back and it has more features, looks almost identical and will run Windows 7 with an open system that will allow you to run whatever you wish. Apple simply has better marketing to make it seem like they are the most revolutionary and first tablet of its kind.

Also, Jobs only owns 5 or 6% of the stock. Its the majority, but not enough to dictate terms or force them to do anything. He also has to excuse himself from any meetings regarding Apple, Disney and now Marvel due to conflicts of interest.

@btownlegend - Yes, they are. However, I'm not sure what your point is. We're discussing the legal means and possible digital distribution for a tablet and other markets, not saying there is no way to get issues online by any means necessary.

Rol said...

I can't ever imagine reading comics OR books on a screen. Guess I'm just an old fashioned guy.

Matthew said...

Just a minor point, but technically you probably *can* listen to music and read comics at the same time - the iPhone's iTunes stream keeps playing even when the app is closed, so it's like the iPad will do the same.

brandon said...

For roughly 15 years we've seen various tablets come out from the likes of Microsoft, Apple (I believe this is their third attempt), AT&T and others. None have seemingly taken over for various reasons. I don't know why this one will. I'm skeptical. I would think Marvel and DC would be more likely to wait until the thing really takes off as a means to midigate risk. That's my guess anyway.

Nice post.

Matt Ampersand said...

In Apple's defense, the first generation iPod totally sucked too. It wasn't until the third attempt that they started to actually make it worthwhile.

That being said, the lack of Flash support, the small and crappy memory are what the weakest links in the iPad.

Another thing to keep in mind is the popularity of manga in Japan. We may only have a couple of hundred thousand comic readers in the US, making digital comics not as profitable as music, games, or movies. But judging by the numbers manga sells, I wouldn't be surprised if some Japanese company is the first one to design a device specifically designed to work as a digital comic reader .

Bill said...

I'd kinda like it if buying digital comics earned me a discount on the trade. But I doubt that'd ever happen, cause it would involve not squeezing every penny possible out of their audience.

The lack of space is a cost/size concern. You can't fit an actual disk in there, so you have to use flash, and that stuff ain't cheap. This is not meant to be anyone's primary computer, and there are plenty of solutions to store things in the cloud though, so I don't think this'll turn out to be an issue in the long run. No USB port is ridiculous though.

But yeah, the locked down nature of this thing is what will prevent me from ever owning one. I suspect there will be clone tablets soon running the android OS which will let you actually do things that a computer does.

Matt Ampersand said...

@Bill: The thing about the "discounts for trades" policy is that it would be nearly impossible to match the discounts offered by sites like Amazon.

Jer said...

the fact is, Marvel and DC dictate how the market evolves.

recall that our top selling comics often times do not even crack 100,000 units sold

Let's take these two facts together and call it like it is - the "comics market" is tiny. Incredibly tiny. These 100,000 units that are sold are not even measured in units sold to customers - these are units sold to retailers. The quantity of units sold through to customers is an unknown. And given these days that titles that break the 100,000 unit mark are titles that have some kind of promotional incentive for retailers to purchase, I'm hesitant to suggest that the sell through would be even close to that mark.

The Big Two are not going to be leaders in this market - they are going to be followers. And they're not going to be following other comic book companies, all of whom are smaller than they are and have even less money to invest in a new platform than the Big Two do. They're going to be following magazine publishers. The magazine publishers are the ones who are frothing at the mouth hoping that this platform will save their industry from irrelevance. If they can figure out how to make it work, the comics companies may follow behind. But the magazine publishers are going to have to build the infrastructure and figure out how to make it pay first.

I say may because I'm not convinced that either Time-Warner or Disney have any interest in allowing the comics publishing arms of DC or Marvel to expand out from where they are. I don't think they have any plans to invest in attempting to expand comics to the mass market any more than they have plans to produce radio dramas for the mass market. They like the properties and want to use them in animation, movies, and external licensing. If the publishing arms become a liability they'll cut them off, but as long as they are making money they'll keep them going. They just don't have any intention of trying to grow the business on that end. (I also think that in the next couple of decades Disney and Marvel are going to butt heads over the handling of the superhero properties. Disney telegraphed that a big chunk of the reason for the Marvel purchase was because they are looking for properties that appeal to tween boys. Marvel currently publishes books with those characters that are directly marketed at 30 year old guys. Something is going to break there, and my money is on Disney when it does. But that's another argument entirely.)

It would take someone making an explosion into the digital comics arena and making a ton of money at it to get Time-Warner and Disney to sit up and take notice and maybe invest in it. But I don't think there's a ton of money to be made in web publishing - I think there's money to be made, but not the kind that will make Disney or TW get out of bed for it. And I think that the magazine publishers are going to be finding this out the hard way - there are a lot of people out there on the Internet who want to entertain people and are willing to do it for pittance compared to what it costs to run a magazine under a standard publishing model. Many of them will do it for free as a hobby because they like it. When you have enough people out there providing entertainment for free, it's tough to convince folks that your stuff is so much better that they should pay for it. Especially when you seem to be setting your price point at ridiculously high levels.

(I actually think that Marvel's current model has a lot of merit if they would take it seriously and expand on it a bit. A flat rate subscription model that gives you unlimited access to their back catalog combined with "premium" content that only subscribers have access to - books designed to be read online and not available in stores - would be a great model. It would essentially be the Netflix model modified to work with comics. I think it could be a winner, if they were serious about it.)

Adam Humphreys said...

Personally, I’d get an inexpensive digital picture frame (with a bigger screen and more resolution) for reading digital comics.
Just add batteries!

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