As expected, the national nerd news cycle today was overrun with word on Apple's brand new tablet computer – now officially called the iPad. And though in many ways, the device resembles the company's popular iPhone in both operating system and general design, a major part of the presentation surrounding the iPad focused on how the larger screen would make the computer a new kind of eReader for books and periodicals. The device holds a lot of questions for the publishing world in general, but what does its introduction mean for the burgeoning mobile comics landscape?
CBR News reached out to many players from across the downloadable comics sphere for early reactions to the news of the iPad and found many responses as to what the next step for publishers and content providers will be. Although one thing was generally agreed upon, fans can expect everyone to get into the mobile comics business after today.
"As they were announcing this, I kept getting a picture in my head of Apple standing by a pool and all the publishers with their swim caps and swimmies waiting to get into the water. Now with this kind of device, people will feel more confident in experimenting to see how this works with their content in addition to their traditional book-selling methods," said Panelfly CEO Wade Slitkin. Like many of the other players in the mobile comics game, Panelfly watched this morning's iPad news with baited breath (and even had a representative on hand to live blog it), and Slitkin felt that the biggest impact the device will hold for comics readers was the fact that the iPad can help better replicate the traditional comics-buying experience. "One of the largest opportunities that this is going to provide in terms of being a mobile solution is that people are going to actually be able to start centralizing their collections. Collecting and building a library is going to be a feasible thing where they'll have some interconnectivity there, and no matter what you have, you'll be able to read it. I think that will encourage people to continue to download and really start building up their collections. That's what I'm most excited about. It's nice to see everything on a large screen, but it's going to be a lot nicer to have a real collection."
iVerse Comics founder Michael Murphey explained that the possibilities for collectibility expand to users who are familiar and comfortable with the Apple brand and the compatible interface a new entry in that line will bring. "The things the iPad does it does so very well that it's going to be like the iPhone – once people have their hands on it, they're not going to want to not have that device. It's very slick and very well made, and it's going to allow us to be able to present comics in the best possible way on one of the best devices to do this on."
That puts Apple at a tremendous advantage at this early phase in the full-color eReader game, although Marvel Comics Executive Vice President of Digital Media Ira Rubenstein believed the game was still wide open for many players to get in on the tablet device ground floor. "Our strategy is that we're always looking at new technologies that give a good experience to comic book and graphic fiction readers. It has to be better than just a PDF. If you look at the comiXology app or our Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited reader or the Playstation PSP store, all of those are better than just putting up a PDF. When we talk to new companies with new technologies whether it be the Kindle or the Nook, we're looking at how our content looks on these devices. Unless we're happy with what the consumer experience is, we're not doing anything."
Rubenstein went on to say that while the iPad had impressive qualities in terms of comics reading, he personally didn't feel the product was a home run in terms of what people have been expecting from a tablet device. "I was just talking to some buddies, and we were saying, 'I could get a Netbook for cheaper, and they support Flash. And there's a heck of a lot of digital content online in Flash.' I'm not so sure [I'll get one,] but I have kids, and they're perfectly happy on their iPod Touch's watching TV shows. I don't know if I'll need the iPad screen for them. I wasn't overwhelmed by today. It feels like a big, giant iPhone with no camera, which I think is a mistake. Because the reality is that $500 is still a lot of money for a lot of people, and you know more tablets are coming.
"But then again, for comics and graphic fiction, we're all good. More color screens and bigger screens is great, and as we continue to explore and manage our way through this world, having more options and choices for consumers is always a good thing."
The iPad's $499 price point was a major topic of discussion for all players involved, with some like comiXology's David Steinberger feeling the price made the device more open for a wider audience. "I think the big surprise today was the price because $499 makes it a mass market device. We knew it was going to be a nice screen and that it was going to behave like an iPod in the way you interact with it. I think it's disappointing that there's no camera, but at $499 I think a lot of people are going to pick this up. The iPhone is a pretty big market, which is why we're there, and we look to see where the other big markets are and how we can take advantage in terms of the size of the screen. But $499 sews it up for me in terms of it being very well worth pursuing," Steinberger said.
Murphy added, "A lot of people are viewing this as a book reader and a reader of eContent – and that's a very important element of it – but the thing to keep in mind too is that when looking at price point, there's a space between mobile devices and lap tops. Like [Apple's Steve] Jobs said, that's currently filled with Netbooks, and as he said...they suck. They have terrible keyboards with terrible track pads and tiny screens. And they're made cheap. You can get them from $299 to $399. There's even a remote for your home theater system you can buy that's $315. The iPad is coming out at $499, and it can replace the Netbook and serve as a computer if you want."
However, if the device (and the other similar eReaders that will doubtlessly follow in its wake) do prove popular, it's no guarantee that comics will overtake the iPad reading public in terms of popularity. There are still many questions to be answered in terms of format, presentation and compatibility for all content shared on such computers. "I think the model of being able to buy your content and have it on multiple platforms is really important," Steinberger said. "It's going to be interesting because in particular the iBook and the iBook store announcement is leading to a fractured eBook market, and that for me Comics by comiXology is a platform...not a device-specific store. So I think that's good for us. I'm certain that Apple is going to log on a Kindle application to run on the iPad [like they have for the iPhone], so it won't totally knock that out. Amazon understands that Kindle is a platform and not a content device, and that's how we see comiXology as well."
Exploring those platforms for maximum reach will fall to the publishers, of course. IDW Publishing's Director of ePublishing Jeff Webber explained that while his company has already released digital comics in multiple formats for multiple devices including the iPhone and the Sony PSP, tackling the iPad will bring a new set of challenges for marketing. "From a publisher's standpoint, it's going to be interesting to see what comics we'll distribute through the apps we have right now and how the new iBooks section will factor in, which is more of a distribution model like Amazon as opposed to doing apps uniquely. There's a little potential for confusion in that there may be several ways to buy product," Webber said, adding that how comics will move into the iPad is another major factor.
"I think you're still going to see some comics that have been built up for the small screen in a panel-by-panel basis, and now in this larger scale are we going to be looking at more full pages? Or will the panel-by-panel still be nice on that screen. It's still not a full-sized comic page, but it's probably close enough."
And as more and more players enter into the field to test the waters of the iPad and other tablet computers in this new decade, finding the best presentation and best outlet for selling comics remains the biggest question mark hanging over everyone, and the iPad will at the very least be the first beta tester for the future of comics publishing. Micah Baldwin of recently announced digital comics provider Graphic.ly (who's first iPhone app should debut in a few short weeks) said it will fall upon everyone to seize the most original options for their own survival.
"We're looking at taking advantage of the iPad in new and unique ways that aren't just using it as a glorified iPhone, which for all intents and purposes is what it looks like. We want to make use of all the feature sets that exist within the iPad to present a new and unique way to present comics," Baldwin said. "Something we're very keen on is getting publishers to understand that it's not a digital book. The great thing about a tablet is that it's going to allow you to design to a new form factor and a new functionality set that's going to make comic books different than they've ever been before. And the comic publishers that figure that out and start designing in interesting ways will take advantage of that form factor."