First, online connectivity is becoming more and more ubiquitous and will only to continue to do so. Bandwidth availability and speed has increased to the point where computers can (and often do) run programs that aren't in fact locally loaded. This makes the PC itself more of a thin client that what most of us are used to -- meaning that our interface (the keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc.) is distinctly separated from storage capabilities (as seen in instances like Flickr, YouTube, and Picasa) and, to some degree, processing power (in the case of many online games). I already tend to work with this mindset in place, so I can sit down at almost any internet-connected computer and access most of the files and communications I need. With regard to a web comics reader specifically, that means that I want to be able to collect and aggregate the comics I'm reading in an online location I can get to from anywhere. I don't want a piece of software installed on a single machine that forces me to read my comics from that single workstation. That's not where things are going.
Second, the types of comics I read are pretty varied in presentation and format. Some are daily, some are weekly, some don't even have a regular updating schedule. More significantly, some are posted in a logical, program-based manner with predictable file names; some are put online manually, coded by hand with story-specific file names; and some are embedded into a unique Flash presenter. Not to mention that the height to width ratios are all over the map -- sometimes within the same comic! I'm looking for something flexible to handle all these situations.
It's that later point that ultimately tends to make/break an option for me. Because, despite the fact that Zuda's attempts to drag my butt over to their site irritate the heck out of me, there are some good comics there that I want to read. I've got enough other stuff going on that I don't want to memorize update schedules, and remember to truck over to their site. We have computers for that -- I should be able to fire up my computer and just have it bring me all the comics I regularly read that have been updated since the last time I read them. (This, to my mind, is Zuda's biggest failing: that they're operating almost exclusively with a push instead of a pull mindset.)
Buzzcomix and ClickWheel fail pretty quickly for me because of limited content. The way they're both set up, a comic creator has to provide their content specifically to those sites to be viewed within their framework. While that's not difficult, certainly, that's a requirement of the creator. Sure, I might be able to pester Jane Irwin or Lora Innes to the point where they sign up, but I'm thinking Jim Borgman's probably not going to be nearly as inclined. And even in the case of Irwin or Innes, they're already providing the means on their respective web sites to have their comics pulled down automatically, so why should they be required to go through additional steps to make sure it's seen in another channel that refuses to cater to that.
A poster here suggested Piperka as another alternative. From what I can tell, they don't require the creator to sign up their own comic but they suffer from more of a basic usability problem. (A similar one is also seen in Buzzcomix, actually.) Namely, that the user is required to keep up to speed on the latest installment. They operate under the principle that a user is going to start reading, say, PvP from the beginning and won't be able to get through all of it in one sitting. That's logical enough, but what that also requires is that the user then has to manually tag which comic strip they stop on every time they want to take a break. Obviously, this could be incredibly cumbersome if the user has to leave the computer suddenly and doesn't have the time or remember to tag the strip in question. It also makes ongoing maintenance for the user more difficult than it should be, since they'd have to mark each of the new strips as those are read as well. Now for me, who's reading around 50 web comics regularly and finding new titles to follow all the time, that's a real pain in the rump. I think there might be some use there for catching up on a long-running strip, but for regular reading, it's almost as much work as just daily clicking through a series of sites I've bookmarked in my browser.
The upshot, as I've seen things so far, is that a comic-specific reader is too limited for what I'm looking for. Which leads me to try something more broad: web portals.
Web portals are essentially sites that allow users to collect news and information from around the web and present in one location for easy access. The user, theoretically, has a good degree of control of what content they do/don't see, making it not unlike newspaper but without any of the articles that they don't care about. I had the opportunity to do a lot of development work on the content side of things when my previous employer was putting together their own portal, so I think I've got a pretty good handle on how they can/should work.
The three main portals that most Americans might have access to are iGoogle, MyYahoo and MyMSN -- not coincidentally from the three largest online search engines. Conceptually, they all work pretty much the same and, given that they all allow users to input whatever RSS or XML feeds they want, they can all provide access to many of the comic strips that are online. Additionally, they all provide access to some comic strips that's already built-in to the system. So, instead of hunting down the RSS feed, you can simply check the box next to the word "Doonesbury" and get that comic displayed in full form every day. MyMSN has the most limited selection of these types of comics; MyYahoo has many more, but iGoogle has the most by a far margin. But since these are largely available through RSS feeds (as previously noted) this is a minor point.
RSS feeds, for those who don't know, are content streams hosted by the originating site that provide content updates. The content, while not formatted by the originator, is still tagged with a hidden markup language, which is then interpreted by a feed reader. Each reader is able to this display the same content in any manner of methods, depending on the needs or desires of the person programming the reader. It allows an average user to collect this fed information from several sources into a single location. It turns out that how this information is displayed by any particular reader, in fact, makes a huge difference as I'll explain shortly.
I explained some of how iGoogle handles RSS feeds earlier. MyYahoo, by contrast, looks like this...Each strip is present as a cropped square that, when hovered over, opens up the full image. It's similar to how Google's reader functions, with the notable exception being that the cropped thumbnails appear all over the page and keep popping up every time you mouse over an image. In the example shown, it would be impossible to look at any of the last three pages of Clockwork Game if I was already looking at Bizarro. iGoogle doesn't have that overlap problem because it presents all of the content off to the side. MyYahoo also seems to have a problem with larger graphics, so instances of FreakAngels or Templar, AZ often get displayed with some of the graphics running off the screen.
MyMSN, in a striking contrast, doesn't present the comics in a graphic format at all. They're merely listed by the title and date which, when clicked, open up an entirely new window (or tab, depending on your browser) with the page in question. This means that a user is constantly opening and closing new windows while they're going through comics, and it further means that the entire page's content (including site navigation, banner graphics, and ads) must be downloaded and viewed with each and every click. MyYahoo and iGoogle just focus on the actual content and assume (more logically, if you asked me) that the user knows what they've clicked on and why, so there's no need to call up the entire page.
Another failing of both MyMSN and MyYahoo is that they're more limited for the handful of unusual case scenarios that crop up. Zuda comics, as I noted earlier, don't have an easy way to display off the site. What can be done, however, is present them in a iFrame format. Essentially what this is is a small window displaying a page of information within the context of another page. An iFrame on iGoogle, for example, can pull in the page which features High Moon and, since that page does have some internal tags, jumps immediately to the comic. It gives the illusion that High Moon is being presented by itself within the context of iGoogle. In practice, it looks like this...
It's not an ideal solution, but it works. It can also be applied to non-syndicated strips like The Devil's Panties.
However, this option seems to be wholly unavailable within MyYahoo or MyMSN. Nor is there a miniature web browser that can be set to a specific home page (again, a feature within iGoogle). This means that any comic that isn't syndicated (for example, any of the Zuda offerings) simply is not available within two out of the three portals I looked at.
And I haven't even brought up the speed issues that seem to have been plaguing MyYahoo. I've tried using it through several different network connections, and it always seems to drag my entire internet experience to a crawl. MyMSN moves fastest of the three but I suspect that's largely because they're presenting the comics without any graphics at all.
The upshot of all my research so far is that there isn't a really great, universal web comics reader out there, and what does the best job only works as well as it does because I work in web development for a living and was able to come up with some creative work-around solutions. I doubt there are many comic fans out there who would be willing and/or able to go to that much trouble to read the handful of comics in their browser's bookmark list.
In a way, it's not unlike trying to be a comics fan in the days before the direct market. You can find everything you want, but it's a constant matter of hunting for it on an ongoing basis. For as popular as it is to bash the direct market system (and there are plenty of valid reasons to do so!) it does act as easy and (mostly) reliable gateway for pamphlet comics. How many of you know exactly where to find the latest issue of Northlanders even though you've never bought an issue, or possibly didn't even know the title existed? I think web comics could use something similar: a single location you could go to and read any web comic with the latest installments served up as they're generated. It's the 21st century after all; reading online comics shouldn't be that tedious!