Thursday, January 28, 2010
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.
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.