Dear Amazon, please kill the ComiXology app

Dear Amazon, Dear Comixology,

Today, May the 4th, is Free Comic Book Day. I thought this was the right time to issue a plea to you: it’s due time you get rid of the ComiXology app, and ask your customers to just use an unified Kindle app to read their comic books.

I love comic books, and I found ComiXology an awesome service, with awesome selection and good prices. I have been a customer for many years, starting from when I just had bought an iPad for a job. For a while, I have signed up for their ComiXology Unlimited service, that for a monthly fee gave you access to an astounding amount of comics — particularly a lot of non-mainstream comics, a great way to discover some interesting independent authors.

When Amazon bought ComiXology, I was at the same time pleased and afraid — pleased because that could have (and did) boost ComiXology’s reach, afraid because there was always a significant overlap with the Kindle app, ecosystem and market. And it turned out that my fears were just as real, as I found out last year.

I don’t want to repeat the specifics here, the short version is that the ComiXology app has been broken for over a year now for any Android user that relies on microSD storage rather than the internal storage, such as mine. After multiple denial from ComiXology support, the blog post helped me get this to the attention of at least one engineer on the team, who actually sent me a reply nearly 11 months ago:

I followed up with our team and a few weeks ago we met about your report. We realized you are 100% correct, and we’re re-evaluating our decision RE adoptable storage. I don’t have news on when that answer is coming, but the topic is open internally and I want to thank you for your detailed emails and notes. Hopefully we can figure this out and get you back.

Matt, ComiXology Support, May 30, 2018

Unfortunately, months passed, and no changes were pushed to the app. The tablet got an Android OS update, ComiXology got updates every few months, but the app to this day has any way to store its content on microSD cards. The last contact I have from support is from last summer:

Our team has tracked down what’s going on and you are correct in your analysis. They are working on a solution, though we do not have an estimate for when you will be seeing it. We will keep on checking in on this and making sure things move along.

Erin, ComiXology Support, August 13th, 2018

This is not just a simple annoyance. There is a workaround, that involves using the microSD as so-called “portable storage”, and telling the app to store the comics on the SD card itself. But it has another side effect: you can’t then use the SD card to download Netflix content. The Netflix app cannot be moved to the card, either as adopted or portable storage – just like ComiXolgy – but it supports selecting an “adopted storage” microSD card for storage, and actually defaults to it. So you end up choosing between Netflix and ComiXology.

And here’s the kicker: the Kindle app, developed by a different branch of the same company, does this the right way.

And this brings me back to the topic of this post: the Kindle app is not stellr for reading comic books in my experience, ComiXology did a much better job at navigating panels. But that’s where it stops — Kindle has a better library handling, a better background download support, and clearly better support for modern Android OS. But I can’t read the content I already paid for in ComiXology on that.

I think the best value for the customers, for the people actually reading the comic books, would be if Amazon just stopped investing engineering into the ComiXology app at this point, which clearly appears understaffed and not making any forward progress anyway, and instead allowed reading of ComiXology content on Kindle apps. And maybe Kindle hardware — I would love reading my manga collection on a Kindle, even if I had to upgrade from my Paperwhite (but please, if you require me to do that, use USB-C for the next gen!)

Will you, Amazon?

Comixology for Android: bad engineering, and an exemplary tale against DRM

I grew up as a huge fan of comic books. Not only Italian Disney comics, which are something in by themselves, but also of US comics from Marvel. You could say that I grew up on Spider-Man and Duck Avenger. Unfortunately actually holding physical comic books nowadays is getting harder, simply because I’m travelling all the time, and I also try to keep as little physical media as I manage to, given the constraint of space of my apartment.

Digital comics are, thus, a big incentive for me to keep reading. And in particular, a few years ago I started buying my comics from Comixology, which was later bought by Amazon. The reason why I chose this particular service over others is that it allowed me to buy, and read, through a single service, the comics from Marvel, Dark Horse, Viz and a number of independent publishers. All of this sounded good to me.

I have not been reading a lot over the past few years, but as I moved to London, I found that the tube rides have the perfect span of time to catch up on the latest Spider-Man or finish up those Dresden Files graphic novels. So at some point last year I decided to get myself a second tablet, one that is easier to bring on the Tube than my neat but massive Samsung Tab A.

While Comixology is available for the Fire Tablet (being an Amazon property), I settled for the Lenovo Tab 4 8 Plus (what a mouthful!), which is a pretty neat “stock” Android tablet. Indeed, Lenovo customization of the tablet is fairly limited, and beside some clearly broken settings in the base firmware (which insisted on setting up Hangouts as SMS app, despite the tablet not having a baseband), it works quite neatly, and it has a positively long lasting battery.

The only real problem with that device is that it has very limited storage. It’s advertised as a 16GB device, but the truth is that only about half of it is available to the user. And that’s only after effectively uninstalling most of the pre-installed apps, most of which are thankfully not marked as system apps (which means you can fully uninstall them, instead of just keeping them disabled). Indeed, the more firmware updates, the fewer apps that are marked as system apps it seems — in my tablet the only three apps currently disabled are the File Manager, Gmail and Hangouts (this is a reading device, not a communication device). I can (and should) probably disable Maps, Calendar, and Photos as well, but that’s going to be for later.

Thankfully, this is not a big problem nowadays, as Android 6 introduced adoptable storage which allows you to use an additional SD cards for storage, transparently for both the system and the apps. It can be a bit slow depending on the card and the usage you make of the device, but as a reading device it works just great.

You were able to move apps to the SD card in older Android versions too, but in those cases you would end up with non-encrypted apps that would still store their data on the device’s main storage. For those cases, a number of applications, including for instance Audible (also an Amazon offering) allow you to select an external storage device to store their data files.

When I bought the tablet, SD card and installed Comixology on it, I didn’t know much about this part of Android to be honest. Indeed, I only checked if Comixology allowed storing the comics on the SD card, and since I found that was the case, I was all happy. I had adopted the SD card though, without realizing what that actually meant, though, and that was the first problem. Because then the documentation from Comixology didn’t actually match my experience: the setting to choose the SD card for storage didn’t appear, and I contacted tech support, who kept asking me questions about the device and what I was trying to do, but provided me no solution.

Instead, I noticed that everything was alright: as I adopted the SD card before installing the app, it got automatically installed on it, and it started using the card itself for storage, which allowed me to download as many comicbooks as I wanted, and not bother me at all.

Until some time earlier this year, I couldn’t update the app anymore. It kept failing with a strange Play Store error. So I decided to uninstall and reinstall it… at which point I had no way to move it back to the SD card! They disabled the option to allow the application to be moved in their manifest, and that’s why Play Store was unable to update it.

Over a month ago I contacted Comixology tech support, telling them what was going on, assuming that this was an oversight. Instead I kept getting stubborn responses that moving the app to the SD card didn’t move the comics (wrong), or insinuating I was using a rooted device (also wrong). I still haven’t managed to get them to reintroduce the movable app, even though the Kindle app, also from Amazon, moves to the SD card just fine. Ironically, you can read comics bought on Kindle Store with the Comixology app but, for some reason, not vice-versa. If I could just use the Kindle app I wouldn’t even bother with installing the Comixology app.

Now I cancelled my Comixology Unlimited subscription, cancelled my subscription to new issues of Spider-Man, Bleach, and a few other series, and am pondering what’s the best solution to my problems. I could use non-adopted storage for the tablet if I effectively dedicate it to Comixology — unfortunately in that case I won’t be able to download Google Play Books or Kindle content to the SD card as they don’t support the external storage mode. I could just read a few issues at a time, using the ~7GB storage space that I have available on the internal storage, but that’s also fairly annoying. More likely I’ll start buying the comics from another service that has a better understanding of the Android ecosystem.

Of course the issue remains that I have a lot of content on Comixology, and just a very limited subset of comics are DRM-free. This is not strictly speaking Comixology’s fault: the publishers are the one deciding whether to DRM their content or not. But it definitely shows an issue that many publishers don’t seem to grasp: in front of technical problems like this, the consumer will have better “protection” if they would have just pirated the comics!

For the moment, I can only hope that someone reading this post happens to work for, or know someone working for, Comixology or Amazon (in the product teams — I know a number of people in the Amazon production environment, but I know they are far away from the people who would be able to fix this), and they can update the Comixology app to be able to work with modern Android, so that I can resume reading all my comics easily.

Or if Amazon feels like that, I’d be okay with them giving me a Fire tablet to use in place of the Lenovo. Though I somewhat doubt that’s something they would be happy on doing.

The misery of the ePub format

I often assume that most of the people reading my blog have been reading it for a long enough time that they know a few of my quirks, one of which is my “passion” for digital distribution, and in particular my liking of eBooks over printed books. This passion actually stems from the fact I’d like to be able to move out of my current home soonish, and the least “physical” stuff I have to bring with me, the better.

I started buying eBooks back in 2010, when I discovered my Sony Reader PRS-505 (originally only capable of reading Sony’s own format) was updated to be able to read the “standard” ePub format, protected with Adobe’s Digital Editions DRM (ADEPT). One of my first suppliers for books in that format was WHSmith, the British bookstore chain. At the end I bought six books from them: Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World (which I read already, but wanted a digital copy of, after giving away my hardcopy to a friend of mine), and four books of The Dresden Files.

After a while, I had to look at other suppliers for a very simple reason: WHSmith started requiring me a valid UK post code, which I obviously don’t have. I then moved on to Kobo since they seemed to have a more varied selection, and weren’t tied to the geographical distribution of the UK vendor.

Here I got one of my first disappointments with the ePub “standard”: one of the books I bought from Kobo earlier, Douglas Adams’s The Salmon of Doubt I still haven’t been able to read!

(I really wish Kobo at least replaced the book on their catalogue, since even their applications can’t read it, or otherwise I would like some store credit to get a different book, since that one can’t be read with their own applications.)

Over time, I came to understand that the ePub specifications are just too lax to make it a good format: there are a number of ePub files that are broken simply because the ZIP file is “corrupted” (the names within the records don’t match); a few required me to re-package them to be readable by the Reader; and a few more are huge just because they decide to get their own copy of DejaVu font family in the zip file itself. Of course to fix any of these issues, you also have to take the DRM out of the picture, which is luckily very easy for this format.

Today, Kobo is once again the protagonist of a disappointment, a huge one, in terms of digital distribution; together with WHSmith. But first let’s take a step back to last week.

While in the United States with Luca, I got my hands on a Kindle (the version with keyboard); why? Well, from one side I was starting to be irked by the long list of issues I noted earlier about ePub books, but on the other hand, a few books such as Ian Fleming’s classic Bond novels were not available on Kobo or other ePub suppliers, while they were readily available on Amazon… plus a few of the books I could find on both Kobo and Amazon were slightly cheaper on the latter. I already started reading Fleming’s novels on the iPad through Amazon’s app, but I don’t like reading on a standard LCD.

Coming back home, we passed through London Heathrow; Luca went to look for a book to read on the way home, and we went to the WHBook shop there… and I was surprised to see it was now selling Kobo’s own reader device (the last WHSmith shop I was at, a couple of years ago, was selling Sony exclusively). This sounded strange, considering that WHSmith and Kobo were rivals, for me in particular but in general as well.

I wasn’t that far off, when I smelled something fishy; indeed, tonight I received a mail from WHSmith telling me they joined forces with Kobo, and that they will no longer supply eBooks on their webshop. The format being what it is, if they no longer kept the shop, you’d be found without a way to re-download or eBooks, which is why it is important for a digital distributor to be solid for me.. turns out that WHSmith is not as solid as I supposed. So they suggest you to make an account at Kobo (unless you have one already, like I did) so that they can transfer your books on that account.

Lovely! For me that was very good news, since having the books on my Kobo account means not only being able to access them as ePub (which I had already), but also that I could read them on their apps for Android and iPad, as well as on their own website (very Amazon-y of them). Unfortunately there is a problem: out of the six books I bought at WHSmith, they only let me transfer… two!

Seems like that, even though WHSmith decided to give (or sell) its customers to Kobo, as well as leaving them to provide their ebook offering instead, their partnership does not cover the distribution rights of the books they used to sell. This means that for instance the four Dresden Files novels I bought from WHSmith, that were being edited, even digitally, by the British publisher, are not available to the Canadian store Kobo, who only list the original RoC offerings.

This brings up two whole issues: the first is that unless your supplier is big enough that you can rely on it to exists forever, you shouldn’t trust DRM; luckily for me on the ePub side the DRM is so shallow that I don’t really care for its presence, and on the other hand I foresee Amazon’s DRM to be broken way before they start to crumble. The second issue is that even in the market of digital distribution, which is naturally a worldwide, global market, the regional limitations are making it difficult to have fair offerings; again Amazon seems to sidestep this issue, as it appears to me like there is no book available only on one region in their Kindle offerings: the Italian Kindle store covers all the American books as well.

My stake about iTunes, iPod, Apple TV and the like

I’ve been asked a few times why do I ever use an Apple TV to watch stuff on my TV, and why I’m using an iPod and buying songs from the iTunes store. Maybe I should try to write down my opinion on the matter, which is actually quite pragmatic, I think.

I like stuff that works. Even though AppleTV requires me some fiddling, once it got the videos in, it works. And I can be assured that if I get in my bed, I can watch something, or listen to something, without further issues. Of course it has to get the stuff right first.

The iPod lasts almost a week without charging, and I listen to it almost every night, it plays my music in formats that I can deal with, on Linux, just fine: the very common AAC and the ALAC format (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). FFmpeg plays ALAC; xine and mpd use FFmpeg. And with a container that I don’t dislike. Sure it really could use some more software implemented to deal with it on Linux, like an easy way to get the album art out of it (mpd does not seem to get that), and some better tagging too; I guess I could just buy the PDFs of the standard and try to implement some library to deal with it, or extend libavformat to do that).

I have most of my music collection ripped off the original CDs I have here. I used to have it in FLAC (even though I find its container a bit flakey), then I moved to wavpack which had a series of advantages but still used a custom container format. A few months ago I moved everything to ALAC instead, having a single copy of everything and having it in a container format that is a standard (even though a bit of a hard one).

As for what concerns the iTunes (Music) Store, I’m really happy that Apple is improving it and removing the DRM, even if it means that some songs will cost more than they do now. So you cannot use it from Linux because it only works with iTunes, but the music in the “Plus” format, without DRM, work just as fine under Linux, which is basically the only thing I care about. I’d sincerely be glad to buy TV Series on there if they were without DRM and in the usual compatible format; unfortunately this does not seem to be the case, yet. I bite the bullet with audiobooks, mostly because they are at an affordable price even though they are locked in. This is mostly a pragmatic choice.

Sure I’d love if it had a web-based interface that wouldn’t require me to use iTunes to buy the songs, but it works just as fine to me as it is now, since the one alternative that everybody told me when I was looking for one was Amazon’s MP3 Store. But that does not work where I live (Italy), while the iTunes Store does. What I totally don’t agree with is the people who scream to privacy breach because of the watermarking of the music files bought from the iTunes store. Sure there is my name and my ID in the file that I downloaded, but why should I care? The file is supposed only to be used on my systems, isn’t it? I can run it on any device I own, as long as it can understand the format, and I can re-encode it on a different format for devices that don’t use that. It’s not supposed to be published I’m sure, but the only place where having those data is a problem is usually for music piracy. Which by the way is not much hindered since it’s not too difficult to just get the data out. DRM bad. Watermarking no.

On the other hand, I really cannot get on the Xiph train with Ogg, Theora and Vorbis. Sure they are open formats and all that but the fact they aren’t really working on higher end devices makes them just vendor lock-ins just as bad as DRM is, in my opinion. Since even the patent-freeness of those formats is not entirely clear yet (beside the fact that nobody challenged it for now), I don’t see the point in having my music stored in a format that my devices can’t play just for the sake of it. But, I guess, I live somewhere in the world where this is still sane enough to be dealt with.

All in all, I’d be very glad if Apple extended even more the coverage of Japanese music, since paying customs for it is pretty bad and I cannot find most of the artists I’m interested in here in Italy otherwise.

And before I’m misunderstood, I’m not trying to just do advertising for Apple, I’m just saying that pragmatically I don’t count them off just because they sell proprietary software, beside the fact as you can probably tell by other posts in my blog, I tend to use or learn from their open source pieces too. I just grow tired of people saying that one should stay away from the ITunes Store because of DRM (which is going away) or watermarking (which is a good thing in my opinion).

Proteggiamo i DVD

Come sapete sono un patito dei film in DVD, perché è possibile guardarli in lingua originale coi sottotitoli e sentire le vere voci degli attori, con le loro inflessioni, le loro emozioni e tutto il resto.

Per compleanno e Natale sono riuscito a farmi regalare i due cofanetti della prima stagione di CSI, per un totale di 6 DVD e 25 episodi.

Finalmente lunedì sono arrivati, e nel pomeriggio ho pensato bene di guardare il primo. Lo infilo nel lettore di Defiant, avvio Kaffeine, lancio il DVD, mi fa la solita schermata di legalese rompiscatole per 13 secondi (contati), e infine partono i loghi dei produttori.. ma che succede? Appare un popup che mi informa che non ho i privilegi per guardare il film. Ma com’è possibile? Riprovo un paio di volte e fa la stessa cosa. Se provo a skippare alla traccia successiva, Kaffeine crasha completamente.

Che fare?

Per fortuna ho sempre con me il mio fido Voyager, provo il DVD su questo, usando il lettore Apple ufficiale, et voilà, funziona. Peccato che se provo a saltare la schermata in legalese mi dica “Not Permitted”. Ok mi metto in camera a guardare i telefilm in santa pace, ma scopro con mio rammarico che i sottotitoli sono presenti solo in italiano (e non mi pongo neppure la questione che siano stati fatti bene o no, tanto so già che non saranno fatti bene.

Vabbé iniziamo. Come volevasi dimostrare i sottotitoli in italiano non riprendono correttamente le frasi in inglese. Ad un certo punto però mi stanco e per riposarmi vorrei tornare in lingua italiana. Provo a cambiare audio “Not Permitted”. Vabbé almeno tolgo i sottotitoli “Not Permitted”. Provo a muovermi tra i capitoli… “Not Permitted”….

Ora io potrei ancora ancora capire la cifratura dei DVD (ma non riesco ancora a capire il modo in cui sono assegnate le licenze per il CSS); non riesco a capire la divisione per zone, ma la rispetto; ma proprio non riesco a capire questa diamine di protezione che mi impedisce di accedere ai capitoli, di cambiare audio e sottotitoli, che mi impedisce dunque di usufruire in modo ottimale del prodotto…

Peccato che non abbia voglia ultimamente di combattere, altrimenti avrei chiamato qualche unione dei consumatori per far presente questa cosa.