Amazon made a bit of stir in the comics world recently when they announced that they were purchasing digital comics distributor comiXology. No one I’ve talked to thus far has thinks the sale has anything to do with the comics reading application itself; Amazon has any number of talented programmers on staff and could easily create a really solid comics-reading interface if they choose. Indeed, their current software for the Kindle does a pretty fair job of this already.
No, Amazon’s purchase of comiXology had more to do with the business connections they had built up. Not just Marvel and DC, but all of the European publishers they’ve established relationships with in the past year. I don’t know how much was revealed to Amazon about the then-still-pending deal with Viz, but that’s certainly a nice bonus for the online book retailer as well.
But the other piece of recent Amazon news that I haven’t seen talked about much—at all, really, in comic circles—is their introduction of their own smartphone, the Fire Phone. Amazon already had a Fire tablet that could be used for reading comics (their black and white devices often do not translate comics’ color palettes very well) and their new phone’s smaller screen would suggest that the device wouldn’t be suitable for comics.
Reading comics on Amazon’s previous devices was not a great experience. The black and white devices, as noted above, do not translate color well. While black and white illustrations look fine, few publishers took the time to provide both monochromatic and multi-color versions of their comics. Additionally, Amazon’s Kindles and Fire tablets are somewhat awkwardly sized for comics; a little too small to comfortably read a full page, but a little too large to view a single panel at a time.
This is where the Fire Phone might have a slight advantage in comics: the distinctly smaller screen would definitely be too tiny to view whole pages at a time, but it could prove to be quite comfortable and a natural fit for comiXology’s “guided view” experience. The other big advantage the Fire Phone might have over other Amazon devices is cross-functionality. A devoted book reader has long been a hard-sell for the company and, while the Kindle has been decidedly more popular than competitor Nook, it never took off in quite the way Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos hoped. A full-featured device might prove to be more accepted as people would be inclined to carry a single device to handle all of their needs.
Although the phone, by and large, is unremarkable compared to other contemporary smartphones, the one advance that may prove interesting for comics-folks is their new Firefly technology. This allows users to identify books, movies, songs, etc. on the fly. Something like how Shazam works for music, but across all media. This would, theoretically, mean that a user could point the phone’s camera at a comic, or even an image of a comic, and link directly to that book on comiXology. I doubt the initial rollout would include the ability to scan interior pages like that as well, but the potential on even the cover scans there seems fantastic.
The commentary I’ve seen so far about the Fire Phone was been fairly subdued. Whether this is from previous disappointments with Amazon devices or first-hand usage that did not impress, I can’t say. Regardless of the device’s commercial success, I think it bears keeping an eye on for the opportunities that Amazon is trying to leverage, both in the consumable media industry at large and in comics specifically.