The Two Imperatives: Lessons for Comics on the iPhone

8 Feb

Last week’s speculation about the iphone becoming the dominant platform for comics arrived right on schedule, as the New York ComicCon brought the official announcement of UClick, which is selling comics on the iphone App Store. The io9 article on the introduction also mentions the existence of iVerse, another company attempting a similar venture. UClick’s apparent advantage here lies in how they adjust the content for the technology: they work with the creators to actually adapt each panel for the frame-by-frame reading style of the iphone screen, rather than simply cramming down PDFs.

This won’t be enough. At least initially.

Initially, the technology, nice as it is, won’t drive the content.1 People aren’t going to read comics on their iphone because the technology works, they’ll read them because they feature the creators and characters they want. Even now, people bootleg godawful scans of in-demand comics, conclusively proving that technolgy isn’t the driving factor here.

Eventually, though, the company that manages to distribute a better content lineup is going to get to dictate the technological standards for comics on the iphone. If people wind up going through one distributor or another next year because that’s where Marvel2 is, then they’re not going to hop over to the competition to browse for an unknown impulse purchase, and no difference in screen resolution is going to change that.

Iverse's layout

iVerse's layout

This leaves two imperatives for all would-be entrants into the the iphone/mobile comics field:

Don’t blow it.

You can change technology, but you can’t change standards. Once a standard gets established, it takes hell or high water to change it. Feel free to rush out as many beta products as you want, but whatever you sell damn well better be interoperable with the next generation. This isn’t video-game consoles here; we don’t need a format war.

Don’t sign exclusive contracts.

I know, I know, you’re trying to put the boot on your competitor’s neck. Why wouldn’t you want to lock them out of Scott Pilgrim 6 or whatever next year’s hot title will be?

Thinking like this predates the DRM fiascoes of the last decade and go back to the formitive days of the computer industry. Throughout much of the 1980s, the corridor in Massachusetts centered around I-495 was the hub of the technological universe. It had industry giants like Wang and Digital,3 and a steady stream of graduates from MIT supplying the talent. It had snatched the crown away from California, and just as quickly, it lost it. There’s plenty of reasons why this happened, and some of it falls to pure luck: there’s no accounting for Stanford having a better graduating class, or Michael Dell turning Texas into the Third Coast of tech, but a lot of why Massachusetts fumbled the ball had to do with the state’s labor laws. California is unique in that non-compete clauses are banned in the state. In an industry with as much flux and turnover as the tech business, tying all employees to non-compete clauses, as employers did in Massachusetts, wound up hamstringing the industry by artificially limiting the talent pool. Regardless of how much sense it made for a company to limit its employees’ prospects away from the next, it wound up cutting off the oxygen supply of the industry, which left a lot of unemployed (and legally unemployable) programmers moving to California. You can guess what happened next.

At a time when the industry is in its infancy, the most important goal of all players in the market should be to grow the viability and legitimacy of comics over a mobile device. Limiting distribution channels may seem like competitive advantage for the company writing the contract, but if it keeps the industry from flowering, it’s not doing anyone any favors. Again, the technology might be brilliant, but it’s not like the public is beating down Apple’s door for comics on the iphone. You’re not going to get a lot of chances to get it right. Now do it.

1 And let’s not kid ourselves, the content available at the moment is, charitably, pretty marginal.
2 Of course, Marvel will invent new ways to blow it here. Their current walled-garden model is a faithful electronic reproduction of the worst parts of the comic-shop experience. The Big Two seem to be taking their cues from the RIAA circa 2002, when it thought Rhapsody, Napster, and whatever Microsoft was calling its music store were the way forward.
3 If you haven’t heard of these companies, you’re proving the point even further. Imagine if HP and Dell didn’t exist ten years from now, and you get the meantime. In the meantime, you probably don’t have to look at the back of your computer to check if it was designed in Massachusetts.

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