By Bruce Lidl
The digital comics landscape has settled down significantly in recent months. Since Amazon’s acquisition of ComiXology in April 2014, it has become essentially the de facto standard for digital comics and now distributes just about every publisher around. Unless a real industry-wide Netflix-type subscription model ever takes off, it is hard to see much prospect for change in the near term. And on the technology side, after the pyrotechnics of the tablet explosion with the introduction of the iPad and then lower cost Android devices from Amazon and Barnes&Noble there has been little ground-breaking disruption.
In fact, as the most recent Apple quarterly earnings report demonstrated, tablet sales are stagnating, with iPad sales decreasing almost 20% from the same period in 2014, while iPhone sales continue to grow wildly. According to a recent Pew Research report, almost half of all US consumers own a tablet device, but that percentage is essentially unchanged from 2014. It would appear that the people who wanted a tablet already have one and are not looking to get a new one.
Clearly, the product life-cycle for tablets is quite different from phones, which remain on a roughly two year replacement schedule for many, either through obsolescence or damage. Needless to say, the slowdown in tablet sales is quite a departure from expectations set during the heady time right after the iPad was released. And Apple is attempting to reinvigorate sales by releasing a larger iPad Pro on November 11 with a 12.9 inch screen that will target business and creative users, and will retail at $799 and up.
From a comics consumption perspective, the new iPad Pro is certainly attractive, and it will likely earn the title “best comic book reader ever created.” But is it enough to drive digital comics readers to trade up? Are readers happy with the display capabilities of their current devices? It is hard to imagine any digital comic reading application needing significant computing power, or vastly larger storage, which leaves the display as one of the few clear upgrade paths.
A competing hypothesis to the life-cycle explanation for the slowdown in tablet sales is the growth of mobile phone screen sizes. In April 2010, when the iPad was introduced, the difference between its 9.7 inch screen and the standard 3.5 inch screen of the current iPhone 4 was quite stark. Now, over five years later, an owner of an iPhone 6S Plus has a 5.5 inch screen that can display comics in a totally different quality. And Android users have had a number of larger phones available for some time, with the Samsung Note offering a “phablet” experience beginning in late 2011. It may be that the media consumption role of the tablet is now being replaced by more powerful and bigger mobile phones that offer digital comics readers a “good enough” experience.
It is hard to say where these trends will lead. There may be a wave of tablet sales as the first generation of devices finally become obsolete, or new devices like the iPad Pro, or the Microsoft Surface 4, may provide enough of a differentiation to get devoted digital comics readers to trade up. Or tablets may disappear as a separate discrete product category as mobile phones get bigger.
Where do you stand as a digital comics consumer? Is your current device satisfactory for your comics needs? Would it have to break or get lost for you to replace it? Are you just waiting for something more exciting, like the iPad Pro to come along? Or do you see your phone becoming the primary consumption point for digital comics? Has the evolution of devices affected your digital comics buying? Would a larger, better device make you want to buy more?