by Bruce Lidl
The last few weeks have seen a number of big developments in the digital comics realm, from the highs of Marvel’s big announcements at SXSW to the lows of JManga’s imminent closure. Comixology continues to distance itself from its rivals, and with the new Submit program is poised to expand greatly the revenue possibilities for independent creators. By all accounts the digital slice of the comics industry does remain considerably smaller than its print sibling, and there are many comics fans that steadfastly prefer their floppies, yet little doubt exists that the trend and momentum for growth is strong for digital comics, JManga’s demise notwithstanding.
The crucial undercurrent to ever expanding digital offerings has been, and continues to be, the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of devices capable of displaying digital comics in an effect and compelling manner. And even more specifically, it is the specific recent trends towards ever larger smartphone screens and paradoxically, smaller and cheaper tablets devices.
The tide towards larger, and higher quality, phone displays has been going on for a number of years, but has clearly picked up steam in recent months. Last week saw the announcement of the eagerly awaited Samsung Galaxy S IV, with very nice 5 inch display sporting a 1920×1080 resolution, up from last year’s S III which had a 4.8 inch 1280×720 screen, and rapidly approaching the “phablet” category of Samsung’s popular Galaxy Note II, with its 5.5 inch screen, considered gargantuan not very long ago. The speed at which smartphone screens have grown, particularly on the Android side has been astonishing, especially when you consider the fact that the very first Samsung Galaxy phone from 2009 had a 3.2 in, 480×320 pixel screen, relatively tiny by today’s standards. And of course, even mighty Apple, which had resisted the trend towards larger screens in favor of consistency and compact sizes, finally changed course and released the iPhone 5 last year, bumping the screen from 3.5 inches to 4 inches while maintaining a “Retina” pixel resolution (1136×640). Reading digital comics on a smartphone has gone from a somewhat eccentric notion to a far more mainstream possibility, at least with readers willing to zoom in and out, or let their reading be directed by functions like Comixology’s “Guided View.”
While the increase in smartphone screen sizes is powering more digital comic reading (and hopefully sales!), a trend towards smaller screens on tablets is paradoxically also contributing to expanded digital comic penetration. Apple’s iPad basically invented the category of the tablet, and has dominated sales since its release in April 2010, and continues to be an excellent device for digital comic reading, with a brilliant 9.7 inch screen that has increased in resolution iteratively from the original 1024×768 to the current 2048×1536. However, the recent relative success of Android-based tablets with smaller form factors, primarily in the 7 inch screen range, has demonstrated a hunger among some consumers for smaller and cheaper alternatives to the iPad. Beginning with the original Barnes & Noble Nook Color and then really taking off with Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s own Nexus 7, smaller and less powerful Android tablets at the $199 and below price point have established themselves as real options for customers outside of the Apple orbit. And just as with the iPhone, Apple has not remained unmoved in the face of fierce competition, as shown by the November release of the smaller 7.9 inch 1024×768 iPad Mini. Overall, something like 170 million tablets were sold in 2012, with roughly half coming from Apple, and the rest overwhelmingly split among mostly Android providers (Microsoft’s push into Windows based tablets have struggled mightily, and current analysis puts the number sold at less than 1.5 million units since the October 2012 release). The surge in sales of smaller (less than 8 inch screen size) tablets has exploded in the last few months, with about half of tablets sold in the fourth quarter of 2012 fitting into this category, and driving the adoption of tablets ever higher. Smaller devices and cheaper prices have put tablets into the hands of an ever expanding body of potential comics readers, for while the screens used in the smaller tablets tend to be inferior than those on their larger cousins, they do still present a quite nice package for comic reading. More compact form factors also boost portability, although even the 7 inch tablets won’t fit into many pants pockets.
The boom in demand for smaller and cheaper tablets is expected by industry analysts to continue through 2013, and in fact, the iPad mini is currently even outselling its larger standard iPad sibling, while the rise of popularity in Android offerings will likely lead to that segment overtaking Apple this year.
How has the the shift in device formats affected your digital comics reading habits? Do the new devices encourage you to read more digital comics? Personally, I still read most of my digital comics on my 24 inch desktop monitor, but I do use my relatively large (4.8 inch) smartphone screen more often than in the past, and I like using the “Guided View” option quite with it.
Have you been affected by the JManga shutdown? Do you consider the DRM aspect and the vulnerability of locked-downed purchases a crucial weakness of digital comics? Do you prefer to purchase from Comixology, the publishers’ own sites directly or from online retailers like Amazon? Are you interested in Netflix style offerings of unlimited reading of older titles? Do you acquire comics from unauthorized sources, and does the ease of use of pirated comics versus the restrictions of legitimate content enter into your purchase decisions? Have you been swayed away from physical copies entirely or do you get some titles digitally and some in print?
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.