By Bruce Lidl
With all the recent moves in the digital direction from comics publishers, headlined of course by DCâ€™s New 52 day and date initiative, but also involving Slave Labor Graphics shift, much of the focus has been on the supply side, or how the relationship between print and digital is evolving. Â However, there have been some new developments on the consumption side of the equation. While the dominance of the iPad as the de facto standard tablet, and hence comic reading device, shows no sign of slowing down, other players have not given up, and Amazon in particular is rumored to have big plans for the end of 2011 that could have a major impact on the comics world. Â And in fact, Amazon had just invited select tech journalists to an event on September 28 that is widely expected to launch a new tablet version of the Kindle.
According to industry insider MG Siegler of Techcrunch, who claims to have actually examined a late stage prototype of the coming Amazon tablet, the online retailer has decided to take the seemingly wise step of not trying to compete directly with Apple, but to offer a very different type of tablet from the iPad. Â The new entry in the Kindle line will be 7 inches, quite a bit smaller than the iPad, and will also be significantly cheaper, starting out at $250, or half the price of Appleâ€™s lowest cost tablet. Â Just as with the similarly sized Barnes and Noble Color Nook, the new Kindle will land somewhere in between the iPad and a basic eReader in size and functionality. Â Color touch screen, full web-browsing and email capabilities included, but without the multi-media and gaming power of the iPad. Â Also in line with the Color Nook, the new Kindle will run a heavily customized version of Googleâ€™s Android operating system, deeply integrating the tablet into the Amazon ecosystem of book and media purchases, particularly the Amazon Prime program for frequent shoppers. Â The conventional wisdom is that the new Amazon tablet will be sold at a loss, but with the goal of making far more revenue through the sales of media. Â Yet, it will be interesting to see how strongly Amazon tries to lock down the device, as the Nook Color proved quite popular to Android hackers, who were able to strip off the Barnes and Noble system and turn the tablet into a general purpose device, that could even run competing book store apps side-by-side, and undermine the productâ€™s entire business strategy.
From a comics perspective, the new color Amazon Kindle will likely be able to run digital comic apps from Comixology and Graphicly and the publishers themselves, unlike previous Kindle models. Â Additionally, there may be a number of new opportunities for readers interested in joining the digital comics wave, but at price points lower than the iPad. Â For as little as $99 (plus a monthly subscription fee), readers of the Philadelphia Inquirer can purchase an Android-based tablet that should allow for the purchase and reading of digital comics, and there are likely to be many more lower cost, stripped down tablets available in the future. Â Savvy buyers might also be able to pick up an HP Touchpad at fire-sale prices as the ailing computer giant jettisons its remaining stock of WebOS based tablets. Â With a bit of hacking, these relatively powerful devices should be able to run Android soon, and have access to all the standard digital comics storefronts.
While the economics of digital publishing remains somewhat ambiguous from the suppliersâ€™ vantage, thereâ€™s little doubt that the number of readers capable of consuming digital comics on appropriate devices is growing dramatically. Â New business models that can capitalize on on this new landscape might offer beleaguered comics companies and creators some enticing options for increased revenue.
[Bruce Lidl is a life-long comic fan and has worked for many years in the technology, consumer electronics and digital distribution industries.Â He is an occasional blogger and pod-caster, and lives in San Diego.]