By Jason Snell
June 22, 2015 9:00 AM PT
ComiXology 3.7: New app makes the best of the Amazon/Apple situation
When ComiXology was bought by Amazon last year, the company almost immediately ripped all in-app purchases out of the iOS version of its popular comic-book-reading app. Amazon wasn’t interested in paying Apple 30 percent of its in-app sales, Apple wasn’t interested in negotiating terms, and comic book readers could no longer buy and read comics with a couple of taps.
But the real shame was that without the commerce features, the ComiXology iOS app was completely out of balance. It had been designed as a shop-and-read experience, but was suddenly reduced to “-and-read.” I kept using it for reading—I’d been buying most of my digital comics right on ComiXology’s website for a year—but what was once a smooth experience was now fractured and awful.
Today that all changes with the release of version 3.7 of ComiXology’s Comics app, which introduces a new interface (across not just iOS but also Android and Amazon) featuring customizable lists, improved library options, and the sense that there isn’t a blank space at the heart of the app anymore.
“That was exactly what we were aiming for,” ComiXology CEO David Steinberger told me. “It’s a complete rearchitecting… it’s been a long time coming.”
I’ve been using ComiXology 3.7 for a few weeks now, and it’s superior to the old version of the app in every way. The new Smart Lists tab provides a quick view of your ComiXology collection, listing your recently purchased and unread issues.
Smart Lists track your reading queue
Back when you could buy comics directly in ComiXology on iOS, the list of recent purchases wasn’t vitally important. You could get to it by tapping on a submenu in an In Cloud section primarily devoted to listing all your purchases alphabetically by series. But for the most part, you just shopped for comics, bought them, and read them, all from within the app. With the ComiXology online store ripped out of the app, even if you visited ComiXology’s web site to buy comics, you then had to dig into the interface to force the app to download those issues.
In the new Smart Lists pane, Recently Purchased comics are front and center, displaying thumbnails of the covers, text indicating the series and issue, and with one tap you can be downloading and reading that comic. Much better.
The Smart Lists pane also features In Progress and Unread lists, taking advantage of ComiXology’s ability to track where you are in any given comic and sync that across devices. Previously, ComiXology offered a feature that allowed you to switch devices and pick up where you left off, and the company is using that data to intuit if you’ve finished an issue—according to Steinberger, if your bookmark for a given issue is on the last page, the new app marks that as read. Now with this new version, not only is progress synced across devices, but comics can be marked as read or unread, and that data syncs as well.
“We were getting complaints that people who bought a hundred books in a sale couldn’t keep track of what they’d read and hadn’t read, and had given up,” Steinberger told me. “This is our way of allowing you to very quickly and easily see what we think are the most convenient lists you can be looking at.”
It all results in an interface that lets you view your reading queue in numerous different ways. It fits much better into my reading workflow.1
Unfortunately, Amazon and Apple are still not interested in sharing revenue with one another, so you can’t buy comics directly within ComiXology. Last week ComiXology and Marvel Comics announced that they renewed their strategic partnership, including the Marvel Comics app on the App Store. That app is actually a rebranded version of ComiXology’s own app, but with the in-app purchases intact.2 (The Marvel-ComiXology announcement will also bring single issues of Marvel comics to Amazon for the first time.)
The lack of in-app purchases is a dealbreaker for some people, though I don’t mind it too much—especially now that the ComiXology app has been redesigned, and thanks to some major improvements to the ComiXology web site. Recently ComiXology added one-click purchases to its site, which was already redesigned to work great on the iPad. Buying comics directly on my iPad is as easy as visiting ComiXology’s site and tapping on the comics I want to buy. A second tap will actually switch to the ComiXology app and open the issue for reading, all while it downloads in the background.
Is this approach as good as buying issues via an in-app purchase? No, it’s not. And without in-app purchases, you lose the ability to finish an issue and tap to buy and read the next issue in the series—a dangerously expensive form of binge reading. But ComiXology has clearly put a lot of thought into making the experience as good as possible, given Amazon’s refusal to cut Apple in on sales.
Perhaps more importantly, ComiXology has done a lot of work to overhaul how the app handles large collections. When the service launched in 2009, it had 80 books and were adding 20-25 books per week. Now it’s a catalog of more than 75,000 comics, with nearly 500 new comics added weekly.
“The original app loaded the entire store and every single book into the app, and by the time we got to version 3.0, it was crawling,” Steinberger said. “When you’re a startup, you’re trying to get things done, but now, when we build this, we need to be thinking about when we have a million books, and two million, and five million. And then the architecture and the way you work with the cloud starts to shape itself.”
Even non-obsessed comic readers can end up with nearly a thousand books in their library.3 This update better handles big databases, and the My Books feature has gotten a pretty big upgrade in terms of searching and sorting features and display options.
“The performance is still there at 5,000 books,” Steinberger said. “If you have 50,000 books, you need a more modern device, but if you’re storing 50,000 books, I would hope you have a more modern device!”
If you’ve got young eyes and an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, you’ll also be happy to hear that ComiXology will now download HD versions of comics on larger phones, rather than limiting those high-resolution files to tablets. (I can’t imagine reading an entire comic on an iPhone 6 Plus, but I don’t have young eyes anymore.) Recommendations are also a prominent feature of Smart Lists, though since you can’t buy anything in the app, all you can do is add comics to a Wish List, another one of the app’s Smart Lists. What can you do with the Wish List? Well, nothing in the app, but of course if you go to ComiXology’s website later you can view and buy those items.
Steinberger’s also in charge of Amazon’s comic-book effort, though so far the Amazon-branded comic reading experience hasn’t shown much improvement. Still, Amazon has several engineering jobs they’re hiring for that are based in Seattle, but report to ComiXology. That might be a good indicator—along with the expansion of Marvel to the Amazon store—that there are going to be more upgrades to the comic-book-reading experience on the Amazon side in the future.
In addition to last week’s Marvel news, ComiXology also announced Monday that Dark Horse Comics will be putting its collections, graphic novels, and manga in the ComiXology store. That’s a big deal, because Dark Horse has long been the major ComiXology hold-out. The publisher preferred to build its own comics-reading app and drive all sales through there.
Unfortunately, Dark Horse’s app was never remotely as good as ComiXology’s, and over the years I’ve just stopped buying Dark Horse material because I didn’t want to have to deal with a subpar reading experience. While Dark Horse is still refraining from offering single issues on ComiXology, it will be great to see collected issues of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in ComiXology at last.
- If reading comic books can be called work. Leisureflow? ↩
- So if you’re mostly a Marvel fan, you can actually just use the Marvel app to buy and read comics. Your purchases in that app are a part of your ComiXology account, so they’re available in ComiXology’s app, too. ↩
- I have 724. Yep. I may have a problem. To be fair, that’s only about 10 comics per month. ↩
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