There’s an interesting trend in webcomics for a push onto mobile devices. I think it started with Clickwheel.com (which apparently no longer exists, hence no link), which tried to bring comics to the iPod by encoding them as short video files syndicated like a podcast. I thought this was an interesting idea, and I was even offered an opportunity to get into it on the ground flood, right when it started. However, I had a number of technical and rights management questions about the service and dragged my feet, eventually losing out on the deal and never following up on it. Given that the domain is now owned by a Norwegian ISP that apparently serves up malware, I’d say apathy may have been the right choice.
Nowadays the hot new distribution medium is to put an app on the (seemingly) ubiquitous iPhone (or its GSM-crippled sibling, the iPod Touch). Keenspot was the first place I remember seeing webcomic iPhone apps showing up, although I can’t say for certain that they started the trend. Since then, I’ve seen iPhone apps for various comics popping up here and there. The one I’ve been watching the closest has been Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary (since Howard and I follow each other on Twitter and Facebook). It’s a curious trend to be certain, and it certainly has an element of “hipness” to it. After all, the iPhone is the “it” mobile device these days. And one thing every webcartoonist wants is more eyeballs reading their comics. Certainly it makes sense to go where those eyeballs are, to reach as many potential readers as possible.
Then a thought occurred to me: No one has really asked me why there’s no GPF iPhone app. Certainly it’s a valid question, and I’m even more surprised it hasn’t been brought up yet. I know a number of you out there use iPhones, as I’ve read your comments and seen your screen shots of the GPF site in the past. So I thought about this for a while and came up with a list of reasons why we don’t have an app, then decided to document those reasons here so I can point folks to one place so I won’t have to repeat myself. I thought about putting this in the GPF News, but since it’s more of an opinion piece than a news item, it probably belongs here instead. (There will probably be links from the FAQ eventually, if nothing else.)
The primary reason there is no dedicated GPF app for the iPhone will surely come as a shock to those out there who can’t get enough of their favorite beloved Apple device. I’ve never been one for great diplomacy or delicacy, so I’m afraid I can only be my blunt, bullish, blundering self. I really hate to say this, but it has to be said:
The iPhone isn’t the last word in mobile computing.
Now, before the fan boys start picking up your torches and pitchforks, let me elaborate. I have nothing against the iPhone. In fact, at one point, I seriously considered getting one. The GPF Year Nine story “iDilemma” is actually semi-autobiographical. (GPF Premium subscribers should check out the Author’s Notes for that story to see how it diverges from real life.) In the end, it all boiled down to economics, just as it did for Nick and Ki; it was less expensive for me to buy my current Treo 700p without subsidy than for me to break my contract with my current carrier, switch to AT&T, buy the iPhone plus another phone for my wife, and so on. While I passed on the device itself, several of my coworkers at my day job have iPhones, so I can pretty much get access to one to play with any time I wish. Thus I’m familiar enough with how it works and all the whiz-bang spiffiness it purports to have. I know a thing or two about what it does right, what it does wrong, and how it’s revolutionized the mobile computing or “smartphone” industry.
That said, the iPhone’s 30+ million units pales in comparison to the number of BlackBerry devices in circulation. The iPhone represents one device, one platform, on one network. BlackBerries are available in many form factors from almost every wireless carrier. On top of that, Android is a rapidly-growing platform; while it hasn’t yet matched the numbers of the iPhone, like the BlackBerry it comes in many flavors from many manufacturers and can be found on almost every network. It won’t be long before Android phones overtake iPhones in number by mere aggregation of disparate devices. And while some folks dismiss Palm as a has-been in the market, the Pre and the Pixi are selling modestly and may represent a comeback for the company. (Don’t forget the many of us who, ahem, still use good ol’ Palm OS, myself included, despite its age.) No matter how much we’d all wish it just went away, Windows Mobile still exists and people are still suckered into buying phones with it installed. And all of this ignores the biggest player of all in the field: Symbian, which runs about half of all mobile phones in the world.
Right there, I’ve listed off seven mobile platforms, including the iPhone. To pick one would severely limit the potential to reach new customers. To pick one with such a small market share (~14% as of Q2 2009) would be even more limiting. If my goal were to reach as many eyeballs as possible, why would I focus on one tiny segment of the market, simply because it’s the one everyone is talking about at the moment? After all, everyone might be talking about something else in a couple months.
Of course, this plethora of platforms opens up another can of worms. My goal with GPF has always been to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. Although the comic is (currently) confined to the English speaking world, it is available to just about anyone with a Web browser. I carefully designed the site to be as cross-browser compatible as possible, sometimes even sticking with older technologies longer than I should so the site will keep working in older browsers. If nothing else, it degrades gracefully and is still functional if you don’t have something top of the line. For that matter, thanks t0 our Oh No Robot transcriptions, you can even read 95+% of the archives with a text browser! That also means screen readers for the visually impaired can be used to enjoy the strip. It’s not ideal, of course, but it’s functional, and it’s helped us garner fans in ways you might not expect.
And the answer, my friend, is the same as it is the desktop: the Web browser.
What piece of software do all the nifty little gadgets listed above have in common? A Web browser, of course. Some make it the core of everything the device does, like in webOS and to some extent the iPhone. To others, it’s just another app available among many. But even the most rudimentary phones have simple browsers these days, enough to grab small snippets of HTML and display it competently. Even my Treo, which most iPhone users would likely scoff at, allows me to do the odd bit of online banking, news reading, and forum checking. While no single mobile platform is ubiquitous, the Web browser itself comes alarmingly close.
So I’m happy to announce the creation of GPF Mobile, the official mobile-optimized version of the GPF site. There’s nothing special to learn or type in; just visit the main GPF site at the usual URL and it will detect your mobile device and bounce it to the mobile site seamlessly. With the exception of one or two multimedia-rich updates, you can read the entire comic archive, browse the News archive, read the forum, or search the wiki. If you are a Premium subscriber, you can do all of this ad free, as well as get mobile access to the Jeff’s Sketchbook and Rumor Mill archives. The entire mobile site is specially optimized to minimize clutter and trim bandwidth, so it loads fast and doesn’t break your data plan. But if you have a smartphone with a bit more horsepower and a fatter pipe, switching to the “full” site is as simple as a few extra clicks. Just use our site to set a cookie (and you choose its duration) and have access to the full size for as long as you choose. I’ve been using the mobile site myself for months now, especially to keep track of the forum while I’m on the road, and it’s been beta-tested by a number of hand-picked Faulties. It’s not necessarily pretty (in fact, it’s downright Spartan), but it does let you get your GPF fix on the go.
Best of all, it works with BlackBerries, Android, webOS, Palm OS, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and… yes, folks, wait for it… the iPhone. I guarantee that bookmark will take up less valuable storage space than some bloated, unnecessary “app”.
What, no new Recycle Bin or short story this week? Well, truth be told all my varied multitasking has caught up with me and I haven’t had time to devote to writing up a new post or reformatting old content. So no new creative writing content this week. For lack of anything better to do, you can always check out my appearance on FLOSS Weekly, where you can download the audio podcast or watch the captured live video stream. Lots of fun webcomics-meta stuff, as well as video footage of me making an idiot of myself in front of Leo Laporte.
That said, I’m not sure how motivated I am to continue posting these items. The original idea was to renew interest in this blog by providing regular new content. To that end, the idea has been largely unsuccessful. The blog hasn’t seen any significant new traffic and nobody’s posting any comments, positive or negative. With no apparently feedback, either numerically or verbally, I don’t feel a whole lot of motivation to add anything else new. The only other catalyst for adding this content was to give me an outlet for non-GPF creative works, which is an itch that’s been scratched sufficiently enough that it’s no longer strong motivation.
If you’ve been enjoying the short stories and Recycle Bin entries—or even if you haven’t—please drop me a line, either here in the comments or via the other usual channels (e-mail, Twitter, the GPF Forum, etc.). If I hear enough positive reinforcement, I’ll probably be motivated to continue them. If I get mostly negative feedback (or none at all), I’ll probably end it here and not bother with anything else.
I’d like to encourage all of you read NCD—both of you (and that includes you too, Mom)—to trot over to Chris Wright’s Help Desk site and check out these two news posts. Long story short: For various reasons, Chris is rapidly running out of money and is in danger of shutting down Help Desk, Eviscerati, and his other sites, as well as having trouble supporting his family (including their newborn daughter). He’s had a recent swelling of support, but he’s already stated that this initial influx will only help him through mid-December.
I, of course, have a mild bit of self-interest here; I consider the “Ubersoft v. GPF Software” crossover to be an essential part of the GPF archives and I don’t particularly want to lose archive integrity. (If it comes down to shutting down Ubersoft.net, I may ask Chris if I can reproduce his comics inline into the GPF archive at least until the site can come back up, but I’d much rather send traffic—and thus ad revenue—his way instead.) But what I think is much, much more important is what Help Desk represents to webcomics as a whole.
Help Desk may not have numbers rivaling PVP or Penny Arcade (while at Keenspot, I was privy to most Keenspotters’ raw traffic numbers) and by his own admission Chris’ art isn’t going to rival anything like Sarah Ellerton’s. But I consider Chris to be a master humorist, especially in the realm of technology and the tech industry. What he lacked in measurable art skills he more than made up for in wit and wisdom, sticking it to Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and just about everyone else in tech that more than deserved it. In my mind, he pioneered the webcomics “genres” of both “clip art comic” (Chris routinely “assembles” his comics from pre-rendered vector art he designed himself) and “writing so good you forget about the bad art”. Before there was GPF, before there was User Friendly, there was Help Desk (it was hosted with OS/2 eZine in 1996). To lose Help Desk would be a great loss to webcomics, especially when so many of us have celebrated decade-plus anniversaries recently. Chris is on year #12; I’d much rather see him reach year #20 or 30.
Whether it’s a donation, a purchase through his store, or just words of encouragement, I ask everyone to swing by and give Chris as much of a hand as you can. If you’ve enjoyed Help Desk over the years, let Chris know just how much you appreciate his humor and art. If you’ve never checked it out, make sure to rectify that situation immediately. You’ll be gald you did.
So ICANN, the organization that oversees the doling out of domain names on the Internet, has approved the relaxation of the rules for top-level domains (TLDs) to allow for arbitrary TLDs for whoever has the money and technical capability to grab it. If things go according to plan, by the middle of next year you may be able to just type into your browser something like
http://search.google/ rather than
http://www.google.com/, or perhaps you’d rather
http://drive.ford/ or even
To quote virtually ever character in the Star Wars universe, I have a bad feeling about this.
I am so sitting on the fence on this one. My initial gut reaction is this can’t be a good thing. I know far too many non-techies who are confused by Internet addressing as it is, so let’s confuse them some more by adding even more things for them to figure out. JD Fraizer over at User Friendly hit the nail on the head; anyone who has ever used Usenet is probably rolling their eyes a lot more lately. The potential for cybersquatting and trademark dilution is enormous. ICANN insists that an “objection-based mechanism” will be in place to prevent such things, but how much red tape (and legal dollars) will someone have to go through to protect their brand? Every day that a squatter sits on a domain equates to valuable time, money, and reputation that can be lost, something big corporations may be able to wait out but little guys like me can’t afford. It’s been hard enough right now for me to keep up with all the variants of
gpf-comics.something out there. And let’s not get into the discussion of what “offensive” TLDs creative individuals might come up with….
Of course, it’s not like I’m going to be registering
.gpf anytime soon anyway. I suppose that’s one thing ICANN did right: to create your own TLD, you’ll need a truck load of money first. The CBC is reporting an estimated $100,000 per TLD—I have no idea if that’s Canadian dollars or not—but ICANN only says for now that “fee information is not yet available”. Ordinary domain names are dirt cheap nowadays, which is a blessing to small-time operators like me but a curse in that squatters with cash to burn can snap up thousands at a time and hold them for ransom. At least starting a new TLD will take capital, making it a serious investment. It will also be quite a technical undertaking; owning a TLD also means you have to build the infrastructure support it. So if Google were to grab
But then it occurred to me… how awesome would it be if all your favorite comics or comic-related sites could found at “something dot comics”?
Imagine if you will that some philanthropic comics creator/reader with a hundred grand in “mad money” under his bed were to snatch up
.comics and register that with ICANN. Being philanthropic, this individual would charge a minimal fee to register a domain there, just enough to cover operational costs and maybe make a modest living in the process, aggregated out to anticipated demand (of which I’m sure there’d be plenty). There would be only one additional requirement for application beyond the current standard (ethical) process: the domain must be used for a site publishing, promoting, or discussing comics in some way, shape, or form. Consideration for approval would require proof of content, such as a preview development site, previously published work, portfolios, etc.—just enough to prove the site really will be used for something comic-related. Individual titles would be encouraged to register at the root level (
x-men.comics) while companies would register their names (
keenspot.comics) and potentially use sub-domains for their own titles (
x-men.marvel.comics). Our hypothetical philanthropic registrar would also be fair and balanced as to not let big conglomerates dominate the little guys. Disputes over domains would come down to traditional copyright and trademark resolutions, requiring proof of prior art, etc.
Wouldn’t that be just grand?
Of course, what will really happen will be that some big company will come along and buy up
.comics with far more misanthropic intentions (and we know such an obvious TLD wouldn’t sit dormant for long). They’d either squirrel it away selfishly for promoting their own works and no one else’s, or they’ll charge such an exorbitant “premium” price for registrations that only big publishing houses like DC, Marvel, etc. will be able to afford it, shutting out the little independents and webcomics. Even if they price it fairly and keep it open, I’d bet it would get so swamped with squatters that the novelty of the whole TLD would become as diluted
.info is today. Maybe it’s just that I’m pessimistic… or that I’ve been annoyed for so long that some jerk had been holding
gpf-comics.org hostage for years… but I just don’t see this turning into as promising a possibility as I think it could be.
Oh, well. I’ve been waiting for
gpf.com for nearly a decade now. I guess I can just add
gpf.comics to the list. Wishful thinking….
Here’s my line of reasoning: In this episode, Leo Laporte and his unusual round of suspects are joined by Jonathan Coulton, geek musician extraordinaire. Aside from discussing a few topics of current note (like the death of HD DVD), they discuss a recent concert by Coulton where Leo and company joined him to play Rock Band before a nerd-filled audience. They go on to talk about the “new” Internet phenomena of niche entertainment targeting–skipping the big, mass-market blitzkrieg typically used by music, TV, and movie studios and canvasing thousands or millions of potential customers, to instead go directly to your core fans, the few dedicated people who are the ones that will really appreciate what you do. Coulton talks of making a living catering to a small handful of hard-core fans and how this is much more fulfilling that the big media alternative, where both the artist and the audience are faceless statistics on the bottom line of a balance sheet. And they discuss this with such freshness and enthusiasm, as if this is were the next new thing, some epiphany that no one has yet uncovered.
What I find so funny about it is… those of us in webcomics have already been doing this… for years.
I’ve noticed this a lot over the past near-decade of GPF‘s existence. Blogs, podcasts, and other forms of grass-roots media have all cropped up during that time, putting publishing power in the hands of the masses, becoming “innovative” and “groundbreaking” in bringing content production to the people. But a fair number of “new” trends (and problems) associated with these technologies are things I remember seeing crop up among webcartoonists several years before. Long before the term “blog” was coined, I remember chatting with other cartoonists on mailing lists and news groups, swapping ideas about search engine optimization (before that term was coined as well), getting and retaining readers, how to monetize your site, etc. It’s entertaining now to watch many tech headlines to see “fresh” ideas crop up that I’ve personally tried–and abandoned–a couple years before. It’s like the wheel reinventing itself every couple of years, only with different colors and/or materials.
Of course, I would never be so conceited to believe webcomics “did it first.” Webcomics themselves borrow heavily from the underground comics movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, where small independent publishers ducked under government sensors to push out innovated and controversial content directly to the people who wanted them. What changed between then and now is that the interconnectivity of the Internet moved this from basements and back rooms to hidden mailing lists and chat rooms, eventually making its way to the mainstream, all while expanding the sphere of availability from isolated pockets of common interest to global reach. It would also be naive to believe this flow of “innovation” is one-way; RSS and other syndication technologies took off first in the blogosphere, and was only later ret-conned and shoe-horned into webcomic automation systems as a handy update notification system.
Perhaps one of the reasons bloggers and podcasters didn’t learn any lessons from webcartoonists is the difference between skill level–real or perceived, take your pick–required for entry. Cartooning obviously requires some level of artistic talent as cartooning, in all of its myriad of forms, is a form of art. It’s often a commercial art, intended more to generate revenue than anything else, but an art nonetheless, conveying ideas and emotions graphically. And while a well-crafted blog certainly requires a talent for writing, that is often easier to come by than the ability to both write and draw. Thus the critical mass of webcartoonists is much smaller than that of bloggers and podcasters, making it less noticeable to the mainstream. That’s also why “break-out” blogs now seem to be a dime a dozen, but it’s still major news when an online comic gets noticed by big media and gets optioned for TV/movie deals. Everyone knows about blogs and maybe even reads a few, but there are other comics on the “intraweb” besides Dilbert?
I’m not sure if there’s anything useful to these observations, other than the fact that they amuse me occasionally and it gives me something to post about. I’m not sure if anyone else has made these kinds of observations or, for that matter, anybody else cares. But I’ve often wondered if those underground cartoonists of yesteryear thought to same way about us webcartoonists as I have about bloggers. I’d like to think so, just because it creates a nice symmetry. I can’t wait for bloggers to sit around in the old bloggers’ home, thinking such thoughts about whatever comes next. “Those kids with their holocasts… if they had learned the lessons we did about AI search, they’d be raking the quatloos by now….”