I’ve had a Twitter meeting with another producer of a mobile app for the iPhone that promises to deliver comic books to its users. Briefly, there are several problems with the new popular business and endeavour of many comic book publishers and their rush to put their comic books on the iPhone. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that mobile comic books are a good thing. I wrote about mobile comic books over a year ago, when no one in the industry cared about them. The Comic Book Bin also happens to be the first comic book Website that is mobile-friendly. You can read everything at The Comic Book Bin in a mobile format. There are many problems with the rush of many producers to develop and recruit publishers and comic book creators for their iPhone app platform. What I predict and know will happen soon is a boom (we are in the boom now) followed by a bust. The business model and proposition for iPhone apps does not make sense, and because of that the market will implode. If I were a comic book creator or a publisher I would stay out of that bubble. The fundamentals offered currently are all wrong.
Copyrights: Penny Arcade 2007
Problem #1 – The iPhone craze is platform-centric. iVerse Comics’ platform currently works only with iPhones and iPod Touch. He promises to focus on Android phones soon enough. His vision is only focused on the numbers of users and the perception of the platform, not on the real demographics. Comic books succeed because they are universal. The iPhone is not universal. It’s a proprietary platform that limits distribution to a tiny potential market. Even adding support for Android will not properly reach all potential mobile comic book readers. Any solution based on one platform, no matter how popular it is in the public, has to be popular with that segment of the public that buys and reads comic books. Based on my understanding of comic book readers, the market on the iPhone does not exist.
Problem #2 - There is no value added to comic books offered on mobile devices. Most are based on existing contents from print comic books repurposed for mobile devices. As Web comics creators have long understood, creating original contents for Web comics is important. Contents adapted from print sources fare badly because they were not created to take advantage of the new format. Producers think that what they are doing is taking old television series and transforming them into DVD collections. That’s the analogy they use. In reality the analogy is more like taking old television series and showing them on an IMAX movie screen. The format is totally wrong and all the idiosyncrasies that made the old format dear to viewers become annoying in the new format.
Problem #3 -None of the iPhone apps I have surveyed used the strengths of the iPhone. Reading comic books panels on an electronic device like an iPhone is painful. Flipping pages and deciphering tiny captions, even if one can zoom in is not what reading comic books is all about. Many of these applications offer page turn widgets, zooms blown up panels and so on. All of these tricks used to “help” the reader detracts from the reading experience and forces the reader to be conscious about technology instead of just focusing on the contents within the comic books.
Problem #4 -The comic books offered currently cannibalize existing sales of comic books without reaching new potential readers. The way the iPhone apps market the comic books, they sell the same comic books to the same readers that go to comic book shops in another format while pretending that because they are so many iPhone users that they may be interested in reading contents that is badly marketed to them. To reach a wider audience, the producers, the comic book creators and the publishers need to understand who the average mobile user is and why he does not read comic books normally. Unavailability on a mobile device is not a reason for not buying a comic book.
Mobile comic books sponsors need to figure out a few problems before they can take off.
Challenge #1 - First, they need to offer native contents created for mobile devices. Notice I did not say contents created for the iPhone. The iPhone is just one mobile device alternative. The focus on that one platform, no matter how popular it is today is a risk for comic book creators. Putting all of one’s eggs in one technological basket is dangerous. For mobile comic books to succeed, they need to be based on an open platform architecture that allows all potential mobile users to enjoy them as opposed to the users of one brand of phone that is popular at the moment.
Challenge #2 - Second the comics presented on the mobile platform have to be unique enough that one would not want to read them in any other format. If another format makes them easier to read or more appealing then the mobile edition of the comic book has no value or worth to the reader.
Challenge #3 - Third, the comic book must not interfere with the reading activity of the reader. It needs to be user-friendly at all levels and priced appropriately. The focus needs to be on the reader’s convenience not highlighting a technology or the toy of the day.
Challenge #4 - Fourth, mobile producers need to understand why users go online and why they use their phones and apps. The important thing to remember is that mobile usage is casual. If it takes too much effort, as current comic books offered on mobile device do, it’s not worth it for the user. Users use their mobile devices when they have short breaks, when they are using transit or waiting at an airport. If reading a mobile comic book demands too much effort, they will not use them. They need to be engaged quickly and allowed to quit from the application quickly. For example, on my Palm Pre, I can easily put an app in the background and return to it when I have more time to spare. But that’s because my Palm Pre multitasks (the iPhone can't). Comic book apps designed for mobile users need to think about usage in short burst, in and out. Not continuous involvements that tax the user’s mobile device’s resources.
I still think that the craze of many comic book publishers and creators to put their comic books on iPhones is a serious mistake and not responsible. A failure in this market, which I know will happen soon enough, will scare users away from trying out new formats .