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Comixology cloud fails to Make Mine Marvel

Free first issue promo frozen after servers kerpowed

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Comment Digital comic fans are a fairly honest lot, generally prefering to buy their sequential art reading matter than pinch it. But that doesn’t mean they ignore the regular weekly batches of new issues shared online. An apology from Dave Steinberger, head of Comixology, the largest digital comics retailer, reveals one reason why.

Comixology technology sits behind not only its own tablet and smartphone comics purchase and viewing apps - and the store and storage infrastructure behind them - but also apps branded by comics giants DC and Marvel. The latter, creator of such popular characters as Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and the X-Men, this week announced it was giving away free digital copies of 700 series’ first numbers.

Unsurprisingly, comics fans pounced on the offer, encouraged by Marvel’s rare generosity. “Do we expect folks to try and download [every first issue]? We encourage it!" cried David Gabriel, head of Marvel’s digital and print sales, in a statement. Unfortunately, Comixology wasn’t quite ready for the rush.

“We had believed ourselves prepared – but unfortunately we became overwhelmed by the immense response,” confessed Steinberg in a letter emailed to Comixology users. “We’re still struggling to keep our systems up... Our teams are working around the clock to resolve these issues so that you can have the experience you've come to expect.”

These things happen, of course. Many firms have contingency plans in place to cope with excess demand, and if Comixology’s weren’t up to coping with Marvel’s largesse, at least the company was able to cough up and take the blame. What it hasn’t admitted is that it’s own, very internet-centric approach to the sale of digital content has worsened the impact of the outages.

“The result is that you aren't getting your comics when and where you want,” wrote Steinberg.

‘Getting your comics when and where you want’ is, of course, exactly what Comixology is there to deliver. Its tagline is “Buy once, read anywhere”. It’s a classic cloud business. Buy a comic, download it, delete it and - at a later date - download it again, however many times you like, on whatever device you own, provided it supports one of Comixology’s apps or a Flash-running web browser. This is a good notion - until there’s a comic you’ve bought, you want to read it but you can’t because of a server or connectivity outage.

'Unable to download list of purchases' was the error message some Comixology users, including this writer, were treated to yesterday.

Comixology’s apps store local copies of comics as graphics files, encrypted to make then difficult to copy. The company’s emphasis on the cloud, as opposed to, say, an iTunes-style buy-download-and-keep model means that there’s no mechanism in the company’s apps to transfer purchased comics to an computer- or local network storage-hosted archive, and to copy them back for reading, all without having to connect to the internet.

Some users blame DRM. But this isn’t a DRM issue - there’s no reason why the off-device archive can’t contain encrypted content, as is the case with movie and e-book downloads - but of access. The cloud model Comixology has adopted for reader convenience ensures punters may not always have access to their purchases.

Downloads, even encrypted ones, can be accessed at any time by the account holder. Cloud content can only be accessed when the servers are up and running smoothly. Comixology would argue that it does permit you to download your comics. Indeed, given sufficient storage on your tablet, you could download your entire collection to it. True, but since most tablets lack sufficent storage to do that, that’s no excuse not to allow users also to transfer comics to a computer too.

Cloud stores free users from the need to back-up their data in case their local storage is damaged or stolen. They can always reclaim lost files from the internet. But unfortunately it provides no back up in case of internet or server outage. Punters who want one, then, have little recourse but to seek alternative, less legitimate sources for their back-ups, not only in case of a brief internet outage but in the unlikely circumstances that Comixology itself goes under. If that happens, thanks to its cloud model, fans will lose their ability to re-download comics not already present on their tablets.

Meantime, Comixology has had to withdraw the Marvel offer temporarily. It is “pausing the Marvel Comics issue one promotion for the time being” and gathering email addresses from interested fans so it can tell them when it is once again able to serve up all the requested comics.

But they still won't be able to archive locally and later restore those issues when the do. ®

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