Aug 21 2009 1:14pm

Will Digital Comics on the Sony PSP Signal the eReader's iPod Moment?

On Tuesday at gamescom in Cologne, Germany, Sony announced that there would soon be an eReader on the PlayStation Portable. Not content to allow their users to read anything so plain as books, they also announced the launch of Digital Comics. PSP owners will be able to buy and download comics right from their handheld devices from partners IDW Publishing, iVerse Media, and Marvel Entertainment. That’s right, you’ll be able to read X-Men right on your tiny gaming screen!

Marvel in Digital Comics

As dubious as I am about the level of pleasure people will get out of reading comics on a screen roughly the size of an iPhone, I am very, very excited about Digital Comics in general. This Sony PSP deal is going to open the doors to so much more. And it might even give eReaders the consumer base they need to advance to the next level.

For those of you who don’t spend all day reading tech blogs and geeking out over the lastest gadgets (I know, small slice of you, but still), the whole eReader category is getting far more interesting than just what the Amazon Kindle has to offer. Barnes & Noble teamed up with Fictionwise to create an eBookstore of their own, and early next year they’re going to sell a reader to go along with it. B&N’s device is being made by Plastic Logic and has several fancy features, including a touchscreen. It’s grayscale for now, but the company is working on color eInk. Sony is rumored to be bringing out a color eReader next year, and some devices only available overseas already have this capability.

Add to that the newest gadget fad: touchscreen tablet notebooks. Thin, tablet computers that have no physical keyboard, but instead rely on touch input. The rumors are flying that Apple will release one (or two...) in early 2010, and tech bigwig Michael Arrington is pushing to get his CrunchPad to market in time for the holidays.

So in the next year we’re going to see a bunch of 6-12-inch screen devices that are made for easy reading, easy manipulation of what’s on the screen, and easy portability. If eComics don’t find their way onto them in a hurry, I’ll be very surprised. After all, the voracious comic-reading public is full of gadget geeks and early adopters. And comic companies will very likely get some of the double-dipping book publishers keep hoping for—that is, enthusiasts will buy paper copies to keep and collect while also buying digital copies to read.

Don’t be surprised if the PSP is not long one of the only places to get your digital comic fix. The iPhone may be next, if screen size doesn’t turn people off. And whoever is first to market with a decent tablet may tip the scales in favor of a large-screen app. Grayscale eReaders need not be left out as manga will read just fine on them.

Do you see why I’m excited? All of my worlds are colliding. My love of books, my love of comics, and my love of mobile tech. All I need now is some way to manufacture chocolate with a USB peripheral and I’ll be set.

K. Tempest Bradford is an SF writer, editor, and gadget geek.

John Chu
1. JohnChu
There's an app (called, not surprisingly, Comics) that lets you buy and read comics on an iPhone or iPod touch. Some comics come with it. The rest you can buy via the app. Their website lists the available comics. (Note: not an equal comparison because Marvel comics, for example, are not on their iist.)
Pablo Defendini
2. pablodefendini
I'll venture to say that the current crop of e-reading devices is akin to the 13-inch, black and white televisions from the '50s and '60s—we're about to start seeing some really good stuff come out, starting next year: a colour Kindle, the Plastic Logic reader (with and without B&N branding), the Crunchpad (which I'm really looking forward to) and the much vaunted Apple Jesus Tablet, which, if I'm not mistaken, will do for tablet computing what the iPhone did for mobile phones.

The PSP, however, is not going to be a silver bullet for comics or for ereading in general. Any device that limits itself to a niche (and, media playback capabilities aside, the PSP is a niche device, by dint of its form factor and control scheme) won't be appealing to a broad user base. This same logic applies to any reading devices, such as the Kindle, the Sony readers, etc, etc. As an owner of a Sony reader, a Kindle 2, and an iPhone, I find I do absolutely all of my reading on the iPhone—why should I carry around a single-use device when I have a multi-use device on me already, which, aside from the small screen size, does everything much better than the dedicated devices?

Additionally, Sony, as the maker of two niche devices (PSP and the ereaders) is much better served by pumping up the niche-specific features of each discrete device, as relates to their main function. While I can see the appeal of having ereader software on the PSP as a sideline, I think that we'll soon see Sony come out with colour ereaders which will do the heavy lifting in terms of accommodating various types of reading material, including comics.

Then there's the Apple tablet, the PlasticLogic reader and, to a lesser extent, the Crunchpad. The Apple tablet will be marketed in the same way that the iPhone is: as a multi-function, all-purpose device. It won't just read books (although keep in mind that to the best of my knowledge, Apple still holds the trademark for the name "iBook"), it'll play movies and music, control your home appliances (via integration with X10, perhaps?), surf the web, interface with your other computers, and be an otherwise blank slate for any functionality that developers of iPhone/iTablet apps care to build for it. People will buy it in droves, because it will be many things to many people. The larger screen will indeed make it perfect for digital comics.

The PlasticLogic reader (and not the B&N branded partnership, but the actual device coming next year) will be marketed towards businesspeople, and as such may also garner large adoption. I can see the dynamic between these two devices as similar to the dynamic between the Blackberry and the iPhone now.

The other side to this equation, though, is software. Right now, the entire industry (with the notable and willful exception of Amazon) is aggressively aligning behind the ePub format, for many good reasons. The only problem is that, aside from Adobe Digital Editions (which is desktop software for reading eBooks, mainly PDFs and ePubs, and frankly makes for a very, very sub-par usability experience, let alone a reading experience), there is no reading software out there that conforms to the full ePub spec (to my knowledge. I haven't looked into it in the past few months, and things are moving very quickly). Hardware is moving quickly, but until the softwarte catches up (and publishers get their heads out of the sand with regard to DRM, of course), electronic reading will not live to its fullest—and incredibly vast—potential.
K Tempest Bradford
3. ktempest
I see that Pablo is just as passionate about this subject as I am :)
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
I don't want to buy a standalone e-book reader when I have a PDA, because I prefer that size, but if I could buy comics, I would seriously consider investing in, oh, a hundred-buck reader that was lighter than a netbook (and had a better screen orientation), just to save on the shelf space that graphic novels and manga take up. Or just keep them at home and read them on my computer.
Karen Wester Newton
5. kwnewton
I moderated a panel on ebooks at Worldcon, and the panel split on the issue of a dedicated eReader vs. a multi-use device. Lots of folks are already reading books on iPhones & iTouches; they say the screen is fine. Others of us flat out need a bigger screen and prefer the reading ease of e-ink, even if it's only black and white (or black and gray, really). But comics need both color and size. The e-ink color prototype doesn't sound like it's anywhere near ready to market.

I would think it would be worth it to develop a comic book app for netbooks, which do have color; battery life is still an issue, but maybe not as much as for novels.
Kate Nepveu
6. katenepveu
There's already programs like CDisplay, for reading image files sequentially. If I just want to read scanlations, I can on any (Windows, but I presume there are similar programs for different platform) computer.

Manga is also usually black and white, and 20+ volumes of _Fullmetal Alchemist_ take up a *lot* of shelf space . . .
Harry Connolly
7. Harry Connolly
All I need now is some way to manufacture chocolate with a USB peripheral and I’ll be set.

I don't know if this counts as "manufacturing," but you can cook up a batch, definitely.
Harry Connolly
9. Harry Connolly
Well, that's nicer.
Harry Connolly
10. Wbradley
A molecular hinge. A smart hinge. Whatever it gets called in the end, some seriously groovy piece of new technology that I just made up and have no idea how to make. Seriously, that's the killer piece of tech that's missing. So your ebook reader folds out and becomes your tablet pc (with all the ipod no-fuss turns-the-right-way software) and folds IN and becomes your ipod/cellphone/camera. Fits in your pocket and does it all. Now I *really* want one of those!

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