Comixology and the future of connected commerce

Custom Burger ReceiptIt dawned on me recently that, not only are we in a period of great change and transformation, but that those of us who have been working on the web to make it a more social and humane place have only barely begun the process of taking the “personality-ization” (not “personalization”) and connectedness that we take for granted on the web into the offline world.

All at once, my sense tell me that things coming to a head, and, as Om Malik pointed out, we are at the end of an era. It’s anyone’s guess how the next chapter of the social web will read, but a few experiences lately got me thinking.

A connected Apple experience

I first saw a glimmer of this when in Boston, shopping at the Apple store for a USB charger. Upon checkout, I was asked whether I wanted a print copy of my receipt or to have it emailed to me. Reluctant to explain the “+apple” in my email address, I hesitated for a moment but submitted: “by email.”

The Apple employee looked at his screen, read back my email address and said, “Is that correct?”

“Yeah…” I stammered, somewhat surprised. “It is.”

Of course all they did was correlate my credit card number to the email address I’d previously had my receipts sent to. When I was shopping in San Francisco. Here I was in Boston!

Apple had recorded my email, associated it with my credit card (perhaps more than one), and then shared it with all their stores, providing me with a specific kind of convenience that few other stores — at least that I know of — have attempted. (Aside: And don’t give me any buts about privacy and correlations and any of that bullshit. Privacy has a certain kind of value and importance, but I’ve heard so little vision out of privacy zealots that it’s time think about the other side of the coin.)

Now, that small example of convenience may not seem significant on the surface, but it does suggest that new connections — between the world of brick and mortar identity and the realm of digital identity — are emerging, creating new opportunities for creative commerce.

Comixology and Isotope

James Sime by Bryan Lee O'MalleyMy favorite comic book store is located in Hayes Valley in San Francisco. It’s run by James Sime — someone who belongs in comics, much moreso than he belongs selling them. His shop is called Isotope and every month or so, as time allows, I stop in to pick up my “subscriptions” — known in the comic book universe as my “pull list”.

The pull list is a simple concept, essentially a list of comic books that I want to set aside on an individual or ongoing basis — that I’ll come and pick up later. Since new books arrive every Wednesday, it’s not terribly efficient for me to drop in just to pick up one or two issues, so the pull list is the best way to make sure I don’t miss an issue while stretching the time between visits.

The pull list is also a kind of personal relationship: I trust James to not only grab the titles that I’ve explicitly asked for, but to also suggest new books that I might not otherwise learn about. He also has to set aside inventory that might otherwise be made available to his walk-in patrons — even though I might ultimately decide, “Y’know, I think I’ll pass on this one”, so in that way, he’s trusting me to be a reliable patron.

Some time ago, James told me about a dashboard widget that he had discovered that let him see what comics were coming out soon. I checked it out — but then forgot about it — preferring the high touch relationship I had of visiting the store and browsing the shelves.

On a recent visit, James told me that he’d actually been in touch with the makers of the widget and that they were collaborating on “something big.” Having personally introduced James to both Twitter and Foursquare, I was intrigued… I mean, James has long had a blog, has presented at a BarCamp — as comic book retailers go, he’s about as 2.0 as you can get. And since he knows what a big web dork I am, his excitement told me that he was indeed on to something.

“They have an iPhone app,” he began, “called Comixology. It’s like the dashboard widget, but get this: I’ve been working with them on a pilot to hook up my store to their website.”

“Ok,” I said.

“So go to their website and create an account. Then search for my store. You’ll see a button that says ‘connect’. Hit that. From then on, whenever you add something to your digital pull list on the Comixology service, I’ll see it and add a copy to your stack.”

Retail Connection

“Wow,” I thought, “this changes everything.”

Connected commerce, activity streams and the point

It isn’t that my Apple experience or the Comixology service is the answer to question “what is the future of retail?”, but they outline the contours of the nexus between the social web and the real world.

Given what I’ve been working on in a round-about way on the DiSo Project, it is so patently clear to me that where Apple connects a credit card number to an email address, I see an OpenID associated with a payment gateway and a transaction dropbox that happens to be hosted by Google (that is, my email); where James and Comixology see a contextualized relationship management and inventory tool, I see an iPhone application that lets me buy physical goods, connect to a real life merchant of my choosing (based on his high-touch service), and then communicate my tastes and purchases to my friends and fourth-party services through activity streams.

Imagine: after a month of so assembling a good sized pull list on, I visit Isotope and James presents my selections, suggesting a few new books I might be interested in. I agree to give them a try, he updates my pull list on his Mac through the Comixology site, immediately updating on my iPhone. I review the list — everything looks good — and tap the “checkout” button in the app. Pre-loaded funds are immediately withdrawn from my Apple iTunes account; James receives an instant payment confirmation and I can take my comics to go without having ever reached for my wallet. Walking out the door with my nose in my phone, I uncheck a few comics from my transaction history and send the rest to my activity broker — which in turn pushes updates out to Facebook, FriendFeed, and to anyone else who is subscribed to my comic book purchases (yeah, like two people) — and in turn, they take my social recommendations, applying James’, and add some of my picks to their respective pull lists.

The whole thing takes about three minutes, with room for salutations.

This is buyer-mediated commerce (contrary to vendor-mediated), or what I might call “connected commerce.” This is one potential future for platforms like Facebook Connect to get real, and where I think identity, social, commercial and location technology will begin to hit their stride.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

10 thoughts on “Comixology and the future of connected commerce”

  1. Love this. You’re very right about how all this is coming together. Comixology is paving the way in a way that makes it awesome for both the Chris Messina’s of the world and the Isotopes of the world. The integrations you talk about — going into the activity stream — will make it awesome for everyone. Make me think about Kathy Sierra and the idea of helping people kick ass.

  2. Nice article about contextualized commercial experience. In order to provide smooth user experience, multiple services and technologies has to be thoughtfully integrated. I’m sure that any one of the services alone cannot create the same level of experience.

    I find this article to be coherent with “An Internet Watered Down”, a presentation by John Pettengill from Razorfish, that talks about why online business should not just create a “mobile version” of their sites, but should take advantage of mobile technology and carefully integrate their services into the while customer experience.

  3. “…I see an iPhone application that lets me buy physical goods, connect to a real life merchant of my choosing (based on his high-touch service), and then communicate my tastes and purchases to my friends and fourth-party services through activity streams.”

    Love it!

    The tweeting TiVo ( @TwiVo ) similar. The machine tweets its activities, your friends know what you are watching, very likely they’ll pay to watch the same thing because you gave it a thumbs up. Extrapolate to any connected device or machine and everyone wins – companies make more money, you get utility, friends get trustworthy recommendations.

  4. Reminds-me-of-how: It drives me bonkers that two locations of the same hair salon chain—which are around a mile apart—don’t basic customer info with each other.

  5. @Calvin: I agree. A lot of the stuff coming out of Razorfish in this regard is pretty interesting. Thanks for the link!

    @Todd: Exactly. Boxee is another good example where it emits an activity stream of your implicit and explicit behaviors concerning what you watch. Certainly loads of potential!

  6. Why not take it a step further and have your comics delivered to your doorstep, then you don’t even need the comic book store or the iphone. That’s what happened to record stores that catered to DJs.

    Henry Petroski wrote “the essence of engineering is to construe every limiting aspect of existence as a remediable malfunction”. The problem? Most users of technology don’t see it that way, and this leads to solving problems that aren’t significant, because taking away a limitation — any limitation — is viewed as end in itself, regardless of whether removing the limitation makes a meaningful difference or what the costs of adopting the solution are.

    This is what leads technologists to speculate about new ways of living that are enabled by new technology. If removing certain limitations isn’t currently meaningful or useful, perhaps there are new lifestyles for which they are. For example, now we can inundate our friends with our “stream”, so the idea of personal branding is invented to explain why this is important. Mobile computing creates the idea of digital nomads, etc. Is the same not true for “buyer-mediated commerce”? Or the “citizen-centric web”?

    It’s not that these new lifestyles are pure fictions; they aren’t, but they are marginal, and will probably stay that way. But their existence is used in a deeply misleading way, as part of a narrative that claims that these are the early adopters, soon everyone will be doing this, etc. The problem is that this projects the engineering worldview as stated above on to ordinary people: that they aren’t digital nomads (or whatever) because of some limitation, but now that malfunction has been heroically swept away by technology, so now they will leap at the chance.

    This is ultimately OpenID’s problem. It seems like the assumption is that simply removing the malfunction of having to log in to websites individually would translate to users’ adopting it.

    A bit of a tangent, maybe, but there ya go! 🙂

  7. @alsomike: Thanks for your comment.

    I think what you’re getting as it how engineers and technologists like to map emergent behaviors to some justifiable concept — suggesting that, merely because someone behaves a certain way justifies the development and creation of technology to further support that behavior, even if the behavior itself is a byproduct or accident of something else.

    I think you betray your argument in your first two sentences! My whole point is that THERE IS benefit to going to the comic store — in that it affords me the chance to relate to a fellow human being, and to engage in a bit of commercial serendipity. Moreover, there is a certain physical joy in being able to peruse the shelves of a comic book store — with or without the intention to buy — with the purpose of just consuming the experience.

    It’s not unlike going to a museum or window shopping — it’s not about productivity — unlike most technological innovation — it’s simply about engaging in an experience with no ulterior motive.

    Now, you bring up the “citizen-centric web” and OpenID — and I see where you’re going. And maybe you’re right, and perhaps my assumptions and goals are wrong, or simply off-base. But I advocate for the concept and technology because I feel like the way the web — and web relationships — are structured today — are not scalable and are set up against the sanctity of the individual. I believe in the “citizen-centric web”, not just because we can build technology to support it, but because I’ve talked to folks who don’t understand, care about or build technology themselves, and they can relate to the issues that I seek to address with things like the DiSo Project.

    Certainly there is a certainly “early adopter angst” which I don’t presume is shared among the general population, and I don’t mean to presume that the issues that we early adopters face are the issues that everyone faces. However, being on the leading edge of technology has shown me where limitations exist that could be overcome for the benefit of others — and not just because they are limitations and need to be surmounted! Instead, coming from the perspective of a designer, I see a lot of technology that is not the full realization of intent — but merely some stopgap measure to solve an immediate pain-point that ends up causing more long-term behavioral cramping.

    So, I wouldn’t characterize OpenID’s utility as simply ameliorating the proliferation of passwords — but rather come to the problem as recognizing that collective identity doesn’t work for individualized transactions — and that we need some robust and reusable way to assert individuality in our digital transactions. The easiest and longest term solution to that problem, in my estimation, is to provide a means for expressing durable identity on the web, acknowledging that the only way such a solution will succeed is if it’s compatible with the web that we have, rather than the web that we want. That solution, so far, looks to me like OpenID.

  8. It’s not “bullshit” you idiot. Yes, yes, you can give up privacy for convenience, yawn. And there are plenty of people and companies out there who will hassle or screw you with the information you give them. And regardless of any privacy policies or anything else, very likely some or all of it will escape to places you’d never imagine and never want. And then it’s too late, you can’t take it back. So wait until the day when something inconvenient or embarrassing or nasty happens to you because of all that very detailed and personal information you’ve been suckered into providing, then see if you still think it’s BS. That aside, you state things as fact that are only, only your own little opinion. There are plenty of other people that disagree with you, like me. The fact that you need to preemptively abuse them says something about you which is really not good. So wait a few years and see what happens, and see what sort of world you’ve made for yourself. Yes, maybe zero privacy will be so common by then that it will be normal and nobody will think much about it any more. People have predicted that, books have been written about it. It’s very possible. But I seriously doubt that’s going to be a good thing. You just have to look at the world today, the things that are happening, the way things are going, and read a little history. It’s scary. And you should not promote it. If you want it for yourself, fine, dig your own grave. But I and a few others with enough insight to see the consequences will continue to try to keep personal information private. If you had any sense you would too.

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