The webcomics blog about webcomics

Five Hundred Years From Now, Who’ll Know The Difference?

This is a complicated post to write. It’s a follow-up to an earlier post about ClickWheel.

And between then and now, T Campbell and I have had some mostly unnotable miscommunications. So I’m hesitant to write negative things, because in general I prefer not to be misunderstood and it might seem that I’m making a personal attack (which, I promise, I’m not).

But I can’t worry about that – I have to write what I think needs to be written.

ClickWheel, as it stands, is not providing any value to the end user.

None. There is nothing that ClickWheel itself is providing that gives me, as a reader, any reason to come back.

I said I would follow-up on ClickWheel when I’d given it a fair trial, and looked at the comics on the iPod screen. I’ve done that, but I can’t say I gave it a fair shot. I couldn’t.

The download process takes too long.

Flat out, it takes too long and involves too many non-intuitive steps. If I want comics on my iPod, I want them there for the same reason I want everything else on my iPod – for later use. And unlike movies or videos, I can’t imagine reading the same three-page gag strip more than… twice. So the only thing that I’m going to put on my iPod is stuff I haven’t read yet, that I want to read later. Like on the bus to school, the train to work, at the airport waiting for a plane, etc. But I don’t want yesterday’s comics, or comics from last week. I want today’s comics. And I don’t want to spend twenty minutes copying them all to my iPod, one at a time and manually – because I’ve got to catch that bus!

The process of copying a comic to your iPod is as follows.

  1. Go to ClickWheel.
  2. Find the feature you want, and the episode or set of episodes you want.
  3. Click the download button.
  4. Receive a zip file, or perhaps on a Mac an archive in a different format.
  5. Unpack the zip file.
  6. Import the directory into your iTunes photos.
  7. Sync with your iPod.

At least, this is what I’ve had to do. Nowhere on the ClickWheel site, or in their forum, have I found actual instructions for the end-user.

Nowhere.

Everything I see is focused on the comic creator, not the reader. The FAQ is focused on the creator. The marketing message is focused on the creator. The end user appears to be an afterthought – if we build it, they will read?

The only value that ClickWheel provides at all to end users is the content. And there are some big names providing content, so a lot of it is probably pretty great. But it’s too painful to get at. How many of you would read as many webcomics per day as you do now, if you had to manually download and extract each strip?

But here’s the thing I’ve realized. ClickWheel is Beta. It says so right there on the main page! It’s not the modern bazaar style open source development use of the word beta – where beta means “The things that work, they work the way they are supposed to and everything else doesn’t break anything”. It’s the old-school use of the word beta – use at your own risk and let us know everything that breaks, cause we’ve still got a lot of work to do.

So the problem I have is mainly expectations.

I expect that someone with a name as wide-spread as T Campbell won’t waste that name by rushing to grab mind/creator share before there’s something of use and substance. Although, let’s be clear, T Campbell is only the editor of ClickWheel – so he’s not responsible for the technology. He’s responsible for helping creators explore this new and possibly valuable channel for their content – or whatever it is that a webcomics “editor” does these days.

And I expect that something that claims to be “a whole new way of using your iPod, and a whole new way of reading comics” would actually have some technology behind it above and beyond basic CSS/HTML, with some RSS thrown in. (And the RSS doesn’t seem to be sufficient for the RSS reader in iTunes to respond in a more natural way – perhaps because of the archived format of the content?)

Neither of those expectations have been met, but that’s because I read “Beta” with the new meaning, not the old meaning. In the old days, nobody ever installed anything that was labeled “beta” unless they got paid for it, and had an extra computer.

So I’ll follow-up with ClickWheel again, when they are out of beta.

In the mean time, I wonder what the creators who are signing up are expecting? If someone like me, who is very technical in many ways, finds this tool so cumbersome to use… What are the regular iPod users going to do? How many comics readers who got a shiny new video iPod for Christmas are going to use this to explore the new (to them) world of web comics? And how many regular webcomic readers are really going to go through all the hurdles to make the jump here, when the content is so frustrating to get at?

The biggest problem I have with Clickwheel isn’t the fact that I have to extract and then dump them onto my non-existent iPod—which, I think, is more of a problem with the iPod/iTunes closed interface than Clickwheel—it’s that I have to download in whatever units Clickwheel consider as units.

For example, if I want to download every Penny and Aggie strip available on that site, I have to do them one at a time. Well, maybe each of those zip files contain 20 comics. But I don’t know that, because Clickwheel doesn’t tell me. In fact, I find it confusing whether or not some of the stuff on there are iPod/Clickwheel exclusives or just a rehash of the old archives…

This is exactly the kind of thing that Clickwheel needs to hear and must hear. Naturally, that doesn’t mean I agree with all of it, but it’s well-written and insightful. Some of these points, we’re planning to make obsolete by the end of this week. Others will take a bit longer.

(Here, “we” means the Clickwheel team. As Jeff says, I’m not the CEO or the head programmer, but we’re a tight-knit group and they don’t mind my speaking on their behalf occasionally.)

Jeff’s observation about the shifting definition of “beta” is particularly on target. “Beta” is our way past various “chicken or the egg” problems– hard to develop content for the iPod if you don’t know how comics play on the iPod, hard to determine what needs improving about the UI when only developers are using it, et cet.) A healthy portion of my days and nights are devoted to developing the content side and helping William and Kenny with their duties. We have grand plans, but getting there will be a process, and I refuse to make specific promises until I know specific release dates.

Nothing personal taken, Jeff. We serve the art.

I think Clickwheel is a step in the right direction. Obviously there are kinks, but it’s only been fully functional for what, a month? I think it’s still necessary to give it some time, but I think the main problem I have is that iTunes should read it like it does podcasts, and be able to update them automatically.

That would be something.

I was going to do a Checkerboard Nightmare about it, but it felt like I was being mean. I’ll post it now that the topic has been broached. (No one hits my main site anymore anyway.)

I think Clickwheel is going to blossom, but I think right now it’s more focused on expediting the effort of managing multiple artists, than expediting the efforts of the artists, or the readers. I felt like it was a tool for the Clickwheel developers themselves.

Jeff, I don’t when you looked, but there have been instructions on how to download comics to your iPod on the CW site since last Wednesday. You can find them at http://www.clickwheel.net/home/how_to_ipod. Hope they help.

Will – I initially looked around the time of my first post. The link you mentioned seems to be newer than that, and while I did read all the main FAQ items before posting this, I didn’t see the new item on the left side.

So there are instructions. Maybe they should be more prominently displayed?

And it’s really the same process I mentioned, although differently worded.

It might help to have an “instructions” link in the menu bar of the main page. Instructions are going to be one of the first things people will look for, so the FAQ’s a bit too back-of-the-closet for them.

As a former product manager for a software company, I can see that the Clickwheel developers need some very focused customer feedback, and a goal.

The goal: One-click installation/refresh of content.

If I “subscribe” to a dozen different strips, then the content should be automatically refreshed on my iPod each time I sync. It works that way with my music. It should work that way with other content.

Get to that point, and you’ll have a product. Until you get to that point, you have a curiosity.

To specifically answer one of the column’s questions, I think Clickwheel right now is meant to appeal to the “early adapter” – someone who wants to be on the bleeding edge, because they believe it is the direction things will be going in a year or two. And they’re kind of techno-nerds.

“bleeding edge” was the Apple Newton 13 years ago.

The PalmPilot, which followed it two years later, was extremely functional. What it did, it did superbly.

The iPod is not Bleeding Edge — the iPod is mature, and extremely functional. It has much of the same level of maturity that your PC or Mac does, and MORE in some regards: it hearkens back to the controls we’ve used for decades on our tape cassette decks.

Clickwheel needs to be that clean. They’re not playing to a crowd with low expectations. They’re playing to a crowd of iPod owners.

Howard Taylor’s got a very strong point on “one-click installation/refresh of content”. As long as users have to download and unzip each “unit” of each comic separately and manually, it’s likely to take longer getting them iPodded than it would to just read them on the web.

They may also want to use the .cbz ending on their zip files, since things like the comics reader FFview are set up to read such.

It would be nice if it downloaded comics directly to my ipod, from a feed that creators could set up. A comic-cast, I guess.

I don’t know if anyone already said that. I’m mostly just commenting here to say that today’s Achewood comic is probably the best evidence to say that Beef is the coolest. I did not expect what happened today.

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. If I see somebody reading webcomics on an ipod in a coffee shop or on a train I am literally going to kick their ass.

…Why a coffee shop or a TRAIN, so particularly…?

Ever tried to get your equilibrium on a bus?

(I wouldn’t like to try it on the average Tubelike carriage, mind.)

Update: some production delays, but I can get more specific on the first step we’re taking to address Jeff L’s concerns:

http://tcampbell.net/2006/02/would-note-from-programmer-make.html

Lots of people read comics in newspapers on the train or in coffee shops. Seems as good a place as any…. to read comics, in whatever format.

Would it be possible to follow the podcasting model, using RSS enclosures to automatically download episodes? (I think some of the Webcomics Nation strips use enclosures in their RSS feeds, though I don’t know how reader software uses them.)

iTunes, as far as I know, is the only software capable of connecting directly to the iPod and moving content over automatically. Problem is, Apple, not Clickwheel, gets to decide if Clickwheel content is available through iTunes. I would be surprised if Clickwheel isn’t trying to work a deal with Apple, to get themselves on iTunes. If they do, the process will get a lot better, and Clickwheel will probably be a massive success. If they don’t, Clickwheel will probably eventually gutter out of existence, and will be looked on as a complete failure.

I wish the “open source” handhelds were able to pick up more steam, but without marketing budgets, they won’t (for example: I know they exist, but I couldn’t name you one of them right now without googling).

Joey
http://www.webcomicsnation.com

Joey –
The iTunes application is a fully functioning RSS client/browser. Even without a deal with Apple, I can pull down (for example) podcasts from any RSS-enabled website and have them loaded into my iPod. But this only works for files that are already in an iPod compatible format (which a zip archive isn’t…)

The deal with Apple would only get ClickWheel’s information added to the iTunes store or etc.

I know iTunes’ RSS support does encompass enclosures, but does it support *image* enclosures, or just audio and video? I’m at a little bit of a loss since I have no iPod on which to try these things …

I’ve been looking into the PSP as a potential format for delivery of comics. Some are doing it already (and limited support is built into WCN for PSP comics, though few are choosing to use it). The RSS reader Sony sells for the PSP will take a .zip enclosure, unzip it, and move any image files it finds into the proper “photos” directory on the PSP. Which is nice. But unlike iTunes, not everybody with the actual device will have access to this software (it’s sold separately).

The handheld market is a mess of competing proprietary standards. Until those guys get their act together, and start standardizing their formats in the same way that, for example, web browsers on PC’s are all capable of handling certain standard media formats, any real business application of comics-on-handhelds is, at best, a science fair application, I’m afraid.

But I could be wrong!

Joey
http://www.webcomicsnation.com

How essential are zip files to Clickwheel? They clearly make sense for downloading archived strip episodes, but by the sound of it they’re a hinderance when it comes to downloading current episodes into iPods through iTunes. It would make extra complexity, but it might still be worth trying to get current downloads through RSS as non-zipped files. Otherwise Howard Taylor’s criticisms would continue to apply.

I still don’t think that that would work.

For example, here’s an RSS feed with an unzipped image enclosure (Dave Roman’s Astronaut Elementary):


itpc://www.webcomicsnation.com/rss.php?type=series&series=735

I used the “itpc” protocol in that link, so that should pull up iTunes and immediately add the RSS feed to your podcasts.

I am guessing that this will NOT work. Even if iTunes recognizes the feed (minus audio or video file) as a podcast, I’m betting the transfer of the files will break in some way (the image file may end up in the MP3 container on the iPod, instead of the images container, for example).

If anybody with an iPod could test this and let me know, I’d be interested in hearing the results.

Joey
http://www.webcomicsnation.com

Seems the commenting system converted the itpc (in the link itself) into http. Trying again:

itpc://www.webcomicsnation.com/rss.php?type=series&series=735

Joey
http://www.webcomicsnation.com

It didn’t actually convert it. It stripped “itpc:” from the front, leaving “//webcomicsnation…”. Which is then interpreted as being an http:// URL.

Okay, yeah, so the link doesn’t work, but by typing “itpc:// etc.” into my web browser, I was able to get iTunes to add the feed to my podcasts.

Only to get an error message when I tried to update/download the feed (“There are no playable episodes for Astronaut Elementary”). So it’s looking for audio or video. Ditching the .zips would help, in Clickwheel’s case.

Joey
http://www.webcomicsnation.com

Okay, yeah, so the link doesn’t work, but by typing “itpc:// etc.” into my web browser, I was able to get iTunes to add the feed to my podcasts.

Only to get an error message when I tried to update/download the feed (“There are no playable episodes for Astronaut Elementary”). So it’s looking for audio or video. Ditching the .zips would not help, in Clickwheel’s case.

Joey
http://www.webcomicsnation.com

I don’t have an video iPod, but I have a Palm. It would be nice if ClickWheel let me sync my whatever to get comics.

[...] So we’re pretty much where we were a month ago — without the new features, uptake is going to be slow. On the other hand, it is still just beta (whatever that means), and there are several hundred sites out there that are willing to take a flyer on the concept … it’s just a matter of finding them. On the other-other hand, the IndieKarma crew have a large incentive to get those features and site lists to us, since they’ll make money only if they facilitate transfer of funds (and nothing on the first dollar of the first 5000 users). All of which brings us back to the chicken-and-egg situation that is the chief barrier to the service. [...]

[...] Extensive webcomics reading habits are not a prerequisite. In fact, if you’re relatively new to the scene, watching you discover things for the first time and reporting on it would be downright useful. And don’t feel that you have to know lots of people on the inside — trust me, you’ll be getting email from them soon enough, and finding out that they’re pretty much cool people to know. So fire up the text editor of your choice, send us some words — review, analysis, critique, interview, wildly inaccurate jokey piece that gets mistaken for serious — and let us see what you got. Who knows? You could be the next Eric Burns, and then fame, fortune, and Peeps are yours for the asking, my friend. [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post.