Beset by delays since it was first announced in 2009, the digital comics reader and store LongBox is finally here. It's a comprehensive attempt to bring some of that iTunes mojo to comics. This first look video showcases a bit of what was covered in Monday's hands-on, what the program can do, and what still needs work.
The LongBox public beta, for Windows and Mac, showcases a massive amount of potential, but it's definitely a rough work in progress. It faces massive challenges beyond getting the software to function correctly. Unlike music and MP3s, there's currently no single defining file format for comics. The "gray-market" CBR and CBZ are little more than image archive containers and not used by any comics publisher to distribute their comics digitally.
LongBox CEO Rantz Hoseley isn't worried about this, though. LongBox's greatest strength, he said, is that LongBox is a comprehensive platform. It's "comprehensive in terms of production tools and support provided to publishers and creators. Comprehensive in terms of devices and systems. Comprehensive in terms of how users purchase and use content, that we do not dictate how and where customers enjoy the content." He added this applies to archiving and re-downloading as well as content access, which implies that those features will be coming to LongBox.
There's also the issue of adoption. Except for the rise of graphic novels, comics publishers in America have been dependent on the direct market niche comic book stores. Will readers flock to digital versions of them? And will those readers jump from stores to digital, or will LongBox bring in new readership? Hoseley seemed confident in LongBox's ability to fuel growth.
"To the comic industry's credit, while they have historically been very resistant to digital, they've come around in a faster manner than music, film or traditional print. They've realized fairly quickly that consumers want to own the content, and that digital ownership doesn't equal 'piracy.' They've also realized that consumers want their content in different ways."
Retailers, he said, are worried about getting left behind after years of support for a niche market. "The discussions are much less on the adversarial side, and much more on the "let's figure out how to work together" direction." He said he's having ongoing discussions with several comic book store owners as to how to proceed, but that nothing's been finalized yet. If something concrete and long-lasting develops that supports both LongBox and brick-and-mortar retailers, it would be highly unusual and possibly unprecedented in the digital sphere. However, it's just as possible that the initiative could fail.
There's a lot of potential with LongBox, and users seem curious. Hoseley says that the private beta had about 2,000 participants, and that the company's servers notched that many downloads in the first hour alone of the public beta. That, combined with the public interest in tablets and tablet and mobile device versions of LongBox, could make the program transformative. With major pieces still in play and the program not even fully baked, though, it's still too soon to tell what impact, if any, LongBox will have.