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Gadgets, GPF, Technology, Webcomics

Why there isn’t (and likely never will be) a GPF iPhone app

November 30th, 2009 by Jeff | 3 Core Dumps

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.

So if I’m not going limit myself by building a specialized app for one mobile platform, does that mean I’m going to end up making applications for all mobile platforms? No, that too is an exercise in futility. Every mobile platform has its own SDK with its own quirks. The iPhone and webOS use HTML/CSS/JavaScript, Android uses its own version of Java, and BlackBerry, Palm OS, Symbian, and everything else requires specialized cross-compilers and development environments. No, developing for individual platforms isn’t the answer. It just turns everything into a development and maintenance nightmare, one that is ridiculously expensive from a financial, time, and resource perspective. What I need is something that works everywhere, regardless of platform, using resources common to all devices out there.

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”.

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