iLike iComic

by Chris Adamson

Related link: http://homepage.mac.com/xmlguy/iComic/index.html



I've been thinking a lot about so-called "thick clients" recently, particularly after seeing Watson creator Dan Wood's session at the O'Reilly Mac OS X conference. I even did a java.net weblog about thick clients and how well-suited Java is for creating them.



One other thing I've been doing a lot is reading web comics. To me, Monday, Wednesday and Friday start off with Penny Arcade, Tuesdays and Thursdays are about MegaTokyo. And every day requires a look at Sinfest, which for my money is better than anything in the three pages of comics in the Atlanta newspaper.



So imagine my delight to discover that someone has decided to write a thick client in Cocoa, just for reading web comics. Not only that, it's really really good.



If you're interested, stop reading here and go get iComic. For everyone else, here's a little tour...



OK, first off, you had me at the "cute manga girl" icon:





Seriously though, there's a lot of cleverness to this app. The interface is remarkably simple yet powerful:





The chosen comic is displayed under a set of tabs which indicate your current subscriptions - Dilbert and MegaTokyo are built in, while others are available as "plug-ins" (presumably HTML scrapers) at iComic's website. The forward and back buttons go to previous or subsequent strips for the chosen comic. A calendar button pops out a calendar window that can also be used to navigate through the comic, which is useful for more irregularly-published strips. Other features include entering and searching comments for a strip, and quick access for links associated with a strip... absolutely essential for "Penny Arcade", which sometimes isn't funny until you read the creators' blog (if you didn't know about AT&T patenting an anti-spam-blocking technology, the recent PA about the "AT&T RapeBot" would be inexplicably vicious).



Surely this is a nicer end-user experience than expecting users to find and browse to a half-dozen different web pages, remember or bookmark their addresses, wait for unrelated content to load and be rendered, etc. The only obvious problem is that this steals impressions from sites that depend on advertising.



As I said in my java.net weblog, my one fear about a rush to thick clients is that it could lead to more cases of Mac users getting shut out of content if the content providers write thick clients only for Windows. Java is an obvious help here - Java's networking, 2D graphics, and Swing API's would be quite capable of powering an application like iComic, and Java Web Start would be an effective way to distribute, install, and update the client for end-users on Mac, Linux, Windows and future J2SE-capable devices. Unfortunately, instead of writing useful and cool apps, us Java people tend to write IDE's for ourselves (or worse yet... and please strangle the next person who proposes to write one of these... the XML-based visual Java GUI editor... blech). No surprise that the cool stuff would instead come from the Mac world, I guess. Or in the case of iComic author Steve Saxon, a Win32-to-Cocoa switcher. How freakin' awesome is that?



What do you think of iComic? Is this kind of user experience going to replace the web in a few years?


20 Comments

vineetb
2003-11-24 11:11:46
Comics as rss feeds
Most of the comics are available as rss feeds.


I use netnewswire to read my comics.


- vineet

snaggy
2003-11-24 13:12:53
I'll JoT down a few reasons we don't like these aps...
"The only obvious problem is that this steals impressions from sites that depend on advertising."


Nitrozac and I are not big fans of these kinds of aps. Sure, there's a slight chance it may allow more people to see our work, but they do miss out on a lot of the fun, and we take a bigger hit cost-wise.


Besides depriving us of a few micro-cents on advertising, the less obvious ones are...


-adds to our bandwith costs.
-these aps create a ton of error messages when they can't find the proper comic.
-takes away from the Joy of Tech user experience... for instance, there no chance the user will find Relevancy Links, or do the JoyPoll, or click embedded links that may be in the comic.
-people miss out on all the fun in our Forums. :-)


Ok, just a view from the artist's side of things. :-)

anonymous2
2003-11-24 14:58:18
I'll JoT down a few reasons we don't like these aps...
Would you go for a banner ad window ala Sherlock 1? And maybe a toggle button that would allow the comic viewer to show the whole web page vs. just the comic image itself?
tweep
2003-11-24 15:22:12
Point/Counterpoint
I'm a newbie webcartoonist (by which I mean I've only been doing this for 9 mo. or so), so I have a somewhat different perspective from the Joy of Tech folks. I can't help but like the iComic app, if only for its simple elegance (although, out of respect for the wishes of other webcartoonists, I don't use it to browse any webcomic besides my own...it's a handy means of flipping through my own archives).


I liked it so much, in fact, that I wrote the plugin for my comic and shared it with the other iComickers; doing so helped me address some of the concerns raised above and got me a few new readers in the process. I was able to streamline the process of retrieving and downloading the strips so that it would take no more bandwidth than going through the archives by means of the web site (sometimes it takes less bandwidth, in fact) and wouldn't generate any error messages. I was also able to put in links to my main page, forums, and so on (though I don't know how many people actually inspect that little drop-down menu of links).


It could be argued that those of my readers who use iComic to view the comic "aren't doing me any good" (for lack of a better phrase), in that if I had advertising or a store on my website, they'd never see it. But, the way I figure it, perhaps the iComickers will come through by telling their non-iComicking friends about my strip and my readership will grow.


All that said, I do understand the concerns raised by Snaggy, and they're valid ones. I think maybe RSS will provide an alternative that's still convenient for readers, but allows greater interaction between the creator and his audience.


So I've got one of those, too. ;)


- Ben


Comic:
http://www.tweep.com/comic/


iComic plugin:
http://www.tweep.com/downloads/Tweep.comic.sit


RSS:
http://www.tweep.com/backend.php

anonymous2
2003-11-25 08:01:51
iComic - dangerous?
I installed iComic on my G4 (dual-1GHz MDD, OS 10.2.6). Disappointed in the "only two" comics, I downloaded and expanded a number of others from the attached link into the iComic library file. They wouldn't open. At this point I realized I was running iComic from the disk image and wanted to move the iComic library file from the user Library to the computer Library directory, so I dragged-and-dropped. At this point iComic erased my user Library utterly. Email - gone. Preferences - gone. Address book - gone. I can recommend iComic as the ultimate in housecleaning apps, but I won't be using it myself.
anonymous2
2003-11-25 09:01:35
Grand Theft Comic
As a fellow Keenspotter, I can say that if enough people rip off the the comics, many comic hosts will simply dry up and blow away.


You like Sinfest? Good. It survives on Banner Ads. Steal the comic enough with IComic and maybe Tatsuya will just say "Screw it" and go work for the cartoon network.


-Clint H.

anonymous2
2003-11-25 10:40:39
Re: Point/Counterpoint
I think you've got the right idea. Instead of fighting iComic, you should use it to help you. I look at those drop down links a lot of the time. I've even used a link to donate to an artists (so don't forget to put a "Donate" link in your plugin ;).
Maybe you could work with the developer, and plugin authors as well to impliment links and/or blog comments to be downloaded to iComic.
anonymous2
2003-11-25 10:41:22
Re: Point/Counterpoint
I think you've got the right idea. Instead of fighting iComic, you should use it to help you. I look at those drop down links a lot of the time. I've even used a link to donate to an artists (so don't forget to put a "Donate" link in your plugin ;).
Maybe you could work with the developer, and plugin authors as well to impliment links and/or blog comments to be downloaded to iComic.
anonymous2
2003-11-26 03:35:03
This app and bandwidth theft
I am a comic artist whose comic has been in danger of going down several times due to bandwidth theft -- the nonauthorized use of bandwidth that I have to pay for to keep the comic up.


I guess that'S one of the unadvertised features of icomic -- the artist foots the bill completely for your use, and cannot regain any of his/her money back from the banner ads/merchandise that this app skips. So not only are you pulling a comic off his site, but also money from his wallet too.


I should also add that my permission was never asked for to leech my site with these kinds of apps.


If you love comics and respect the rights (and wallets) of the comic creators, you won't use these kinds of apps.

anonymous2
2003-11-26 03:38:38
This app and bandwidth theft
I should also add that this app leeches from comic sites by faking the HTTP_REFERER field. This is a false transaction of data, and I'm not sure where this stands legally.
invalidname
2003-11-26 09:12:14
"Theft" feedback
Maybe I didn't make this clear enough when I wrote the blog, but I did say:


"The only obvious problem is that this steals impressions from sites that depend on advertising."


I'm not ignorant of this issue, it just wasn't the point of this article.


What I wanted to write about is the features and designs of these "thick clients", since some think they might eventually replace web clients for some content. iComic is a good example of something that makes the client side experience much more pleasant than hopping across many pages with contradictory ways of experiencing their links, forums, archives, etc.


I'm also surprised nobody pointed out that in my talking about thick clients of the future, that I presumed it was the content creators who would be providing such clients. Of course, that's NOT the case with iComic, which was written by a third party not related to the creators. That raises some interesting issues: barring an official access API and rules (like Amazon and Google have), is any such client a "thief"? And how reliable are such unofficial apps - HTML scraping is notoriously brittle.


Also, here's a question to the comic creators: are you in the content business or the HTML business? If technology changes and people want a different kind of online experience, how do we get to a point where the content can still make money? Would Keenspot write a thick client, one that served ads and shopping to the reader? Or offer an API and rules to the effect of "if you show the comic, you must show the ad and link to the store"? Or does that require too much coding, too much non-content stuff around the simple idea of putting comics on the net where people can see them?


I don't have the answers, I'm just trying to see where client side internet technology is going.


--Chris (invalidname)

hejazzman
2003-11-26 10:18:55
"Theft" feedback
Hey, here's an idea.


If the problem is that people seeing the comic through such client do not see the banners, then
why not embed the banners in the comic image?
I mean, instead of serving the banner as a seperate image, buddnle them.


Like:
[@][@][@] <- panels
[=======] <- banner


How about this? You can even randomly flip the top and bottom banner/panel arrangement, as to prevent thick clients from using image cropping to leave the banner out).





hejazzman
2003-11-26 10:19:22
"Theft" feedback
Hey, here's an idea.


If the problem is that people seeing the comic through such client do not see the banners, then
why not embed the banners in the comic image?
I mean, instead of serving the banner as a seperate image, buddnle them.


Like:
[@][@][@] <- panels
[=======] <- banner


How about this? You can even randomly flip the top and bottom banner/panel arrangement, as to prevent thick clients from using image cropping to leave the banner out).


Nickos Venturas





anonymous2
2003-11-26 10:22:59
"Theft" feedback
At least one comic artist provides an iComic plugin for his work: http://www.applegeeks.com/


FWIW, one can write links to the main site, store, etc etc, into the plugin, which I have done for some of the plugins I've written.

anonymous2
2003-11-26 10:28:54
"Theft" feedback
Good point about content providers writing thick clients. The nice thing about iComic is that it's easily extensible: someone who would like a standalone UI to reading comics doesn't have to deal with grungy GUI issues. There are many advantages to this (witness the success of Watson and other aggregators). Perhaps, as others have pointed out, the author of iComic can extend the GUI to include display of advertising in addition to the "donate to me" links--really, arbitrary links--capability already there.
anonymous2
2003-11-27 00:55:47
"Theft" feedback
1) That's a lot of extra work for comic creators, don't you think?


2) Unfortunately your suggestion does not incorporate the current way banner ads are sold and counted.


3) It's far easier for everyone JUST TO USE A BOOKMARK.

anonymous2
2003-11-27 01:14:08
"Theft" feedback
"I'm not ignorant of this issue, it just wasn't the point of this article."


It was downplayed far too much. It's a big issue, which raises the moral point of whether these apps are stealing from websites. Heck, it has to fake REFERER information to do it, which should be an indication that this app isn't on the up and up.


"is any such client a "thief"?"


If comic creators are going through extra lengths to protect their documents, such as hotlinking bans, that should remove all doubt. A hotlink ban is like saying "I don't give permission for you to directly access these documents". Whether accessing them though trickery and fakery can technically be called "stealing" is something that is a debatable issue; whether it is a copyright issue and copyright violation is not so debatable.


You raise some good questions. The bottom line is, the content providers don't want to be nailed with the bill from these kinds of clients. Hypothetically, let's say 100% of the comic readers used these clients. That would mean that all of the bandwidth would be footed by the comic creator, without a cent received through advertising support. A lot of comics would go down in a hurry.


Basically what I forsee happening is a technology war between these kinds of reapers and the comic artists as they try to beat the reapers. For example, perhaps one day cookies will be used to make sure it's a browser asking for images rather than a reaper. Or pages will be scrambled with javascript. If this happens, I do believe we will see a decline in the comic reading experience, not an improvement.


All because people are too lazy to bookmark.

hejazzman
2003-11-27 07:28:43
"Theft" feedback
1) No, comic creators won't have to do a thing.
The only thing needed is a simple join of two images, the banner and the comic panel. Trivial, and it can also be automated.


2) The comic + banner can be the link to ad.doubleclick.net or wherever. It is also trivial to write a servet or something to automatically produce the bundled image from a banner and a comic image.

anonymous2
2003-11-27 09:35:06
This app and bandwidth theft
Oh, it's pretty legal. It"s no different than a webbrowser that has ad-blocking and popupblocking turned on. Except that this "webbrowser" is not compatible with more sites than a general webbrowser.
anonymous2
2003-11-29 13:11:54
Comictastic
I much prefer Comictastic, which offers a much better interface, and a marvelous auto-configuring "New Comic" feature, which does not require plugins.


It is $15, but for those of us who read many comic strips, it's well worth it.


- Blennie