Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Don't Worry, the Web Comics App Isn't Worth Your $1.99 Anyway

There's a bit of noise on Twitter today about the Web Comics app that showed up on App Shopper yesterday. The app is basically a limited RSS reader that lets you view certain webcomics (plus Failblog, I Can Haz Cheezburger, et al.) on your mobile device. Mind you, you can't read the comics in their entirety -- you just get whatever the feed sends you.

So why are the tweeters up in arms? Well, the app costs $1.99, and the creator, one Dale Zak, didn't ask the creators for permission to include their comics.

Okay, putting my lawdork hat on for a second, I suspect that what Zak has done isn't actually illegal. After all, the application is essentially a stripped-down RSS reader, and there are plenty of paid RSS readers lurking around the iTunes store. But I get why some creators are angry: this app comes preloaded with a specific set of RSS feeds and it looks (to some eyes) suspiciously like he's charging for access to what the creators give away for free.

But here's the thing: the app just isn't any good. In the name of science and webcomics blogging, I actually shelled out for the app (yes, hurl your tomatoes this way). If Zak had bothered to work with the creators, he might have actually been able to make an especially useful webcomics app, but as is, it's just a crappy RSS reader. Good comics apps recognize that the iPod/iPhone screen is roughly the size of a panel, and use that to their advantage. The Web Comics app isn't smart enough to know what you're looking at or how big it is. You can zoom in and out (on a certain setting), but it's no better than any other RSS reader. On top of that, there's a problem with the pagination, the key that lets you flip from one comic to the next. You can flip through pages queued up for a single comic, but if you want to start reading another comic, you have to go back to the menu and select another comic rather than simply flipping to the next one in your queue.

What's especially baffling is that Zak included some comics (like Eerie Cuties) that don't include images in their RSS feed. So, when you try to open the comic, you see nothing except maybe the title and the date. He failed to include an in-application browser (the one spot where he could run into legal trouble), which is something other mobile RSS readers include. Sure, you can open the comic in Safari, but then what's the point of using a special app?

If you want to read webcomics on your iPod/iPhone/iPad/iWhatever, I'd recommend sticking with the free MobileRSS application. That way, you can load up whatever comics you want, and read them in the in-application browser far more quickly and efficiently than with the Web Comics app.

Note: During the composition of this post, Dale Zak decided to offer the app for free. It's still a pretty crummy app, but now it's probably no more ethically dubious than reading comics on your RSS reader.

Second Note: Due to a tidal wave of negative tweets, Zak has (very apologetically) removed the Web Comics app entirely. I do believe that the accusations of theft were a bit overblown, but I also suspect that a sophisticated webcomics app will be, by necessity, opt-in. I just hope this experience spurs some webcomics creators to work with developers to create applications rather than scaring them off the idea.

24 comments:

Dale said...

Lauren, thanks for your feedback.

This was the first version of the application, and like most things, there is always room for improvement.

I have also received a number of suggestions from fans and artists on how the application can be improved, so I will also take those into account if/when I re-publish the app.

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