Ramblings of General Geekery

ComiXology Scandal

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can’t have missed the news that ComiXology released a new version of their mobile app that drastically changes how comics are purchased. It was reported on technology, gadget, Applerelated, and of course comicbook-related websites. It was even discussed heavily on RPG forums.

A summary of the situation is that:

  • The iPad/iPhone app doesn’t have in-app purchases anymore – you’re forced to buy directly from the web by switching to Safari.
  • The Android app still has in-app purchases, but as I understand it they don’t go through Google Play anymore and, instead, directly hit ComiXology’s servers.

Of course, the internet being what it is, a lot of people are pissed off and are voicing their rage on social networks. I’m not happy with the change either but I’m going to try and articulate my more moderate opinion in a few points here.

It’s probably too soon

The comics industry was in very, very bad shape until recently. Digital comics revived a moribund market in a completely unprecedented way, largely thanks to ComiXology on the iPad. Digital comics let new readers discover series at their own pace without having to enter an intimidating comicbook shop and browsing through stacks of TPBs to find the first story arc. When everything is just a tap away, especially single $2 issues instead of $15 collected volumes, it’s much easier to try things and, eventually, start following one of them. Impulse buying was a big part of ComiXology’s success and the market’s recovery.

But I’m not sure the market has recovered enough at this point. Adding several extra steps between the reader and a purchase may discourage a big percentage of users who are still casual readers and not “fans” yet, and effectively stop to the inertia accumulated over the past couple years.

Profit trumps user experience

It is clear now that this change was made to align with Amazon’s strategy after they were acquired. Amazon is a company that has always walked an extremely fine line of near-zero margins in almost all aspects of their business.

So it’s not surprising that they’re first doing to ComiXology what they did with the Kindle app: avoid the 30% tax that Apple and Google have on their in-app purchasing systems. And it makes sense to do so when you already have your own micro-transaction infrastructure in place, which is the case with Amazon.

The problem is that Apple completely forbids developers from using their own system… and in this case, Amazon chooses their margin over their users’ experience.

That’s extremely disappointing but, again, not surprising coming from Amazon.

Glossing over details

Another disappointing aspect of this whole affair was how unclear the announcement was. This is the email I received:

Dear Comics Enthusiast,

We have introduced a new comiXology iPhone and iPad Comics app, and we are retiring the old one. All your purchased books will be readable in the new app once you’ve downloaded it and taken the following steps:

  • In the original Comics app, log into your comiXology account.
  • Sync your in-app purchases to your comiXology account by tapping the Restore button on the Purchases tab.
  • Download the new comiXology app. This will be your new home for downloading and reading comics.
  • Start shopping on comixology.com. New purchases will appear in the “In Cloud” tab in our new app.

Read this a couple times and tell me if you would have understood what it was all about. It says there’s a new app, but it never says why. Why are they switching to a new app instead of just updating the same one? And where does it say you won’t be able to purchase directly from the app anymore?

This is unacceptably bad communication.

It’s unclear where the money goes

And what happens with that 30% that ComiXology is going to save on each transaction? It’s totally unclear whether this will be redistributed in any way to the creators and publishers.

It would have been extremely easy for ComiXology to mention that more money will go to creators in order to get all fans behind the change. Instead, we’re left to assume this all goes into Jeff Bezos’ pockets… probably because that’s exactly what will happen.

Not really a change for me

That said, since the beginning of the platform, I’ve been buying comics directly on comixology.com in the hope that this meant more money for the creators… and if not, at least I was giving more money to a small but growing company that was making the industry better. So the new iPad app is effectively not changing anything as far as I’m concerned… except that now I’m not sure where this extra money goes anymore.

Pricing and delayed releases

Some people have mentioned that moving to a true web store will let ComiXology and publishers set a finer pricing scale, i.e. comics sold at, say, $1.50 (Apple enforces price points of $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, and so on). This may prove beneficial, but given that it’s Amazon we’re talking about, it may prove to be another opportunity to put pressure on publishers’ margins.

It will also remove the occasional hassle of issues being delayed, or even blocked, by Apple’s crazy stupid approval process because – shocking! – some of them contain adult material. But then again, it was easy enough to switch to the web store for only those rare issues.

ComiXology is becoming obsolete anyway

Another reason I’m less annoyed by this change is that ComiXology was having a decreasing presence in my reading habits anyway. Image Comics has been offering DRM free comics for a while now, so I effectively stopped buying anything from Image in ComiXology. Most Marvel titles I don’t really need to own so I’m reading them through Marvel Unlimited. This leaves DC/Vertigo titles and indie comics, and those are increasingly purchaseable directly from the author…


So all in all, I don’t care that much about the change from a personal user experience point of view, but it does make me worried about the future of the industry. It also doesn’t shine a good light on Amazon – although I guess that’s the least of their worries.

I would hope ComiXology manages to revert the change, but frankly I’d rather put my hopes in more DRM-free comics available directly from the creators and publishers instead.

Meeting Notes

These past couple years my free time has been consumed by work on PieCrust, Wikked, and, oh, yeah, having 2 kids and 2 cats (what I was thinking, I don’t know). As a result, I haven’t been playing music or drawing much, which I miss a lot.

So I started doing it at work. Well, not playing music, because a drumset in the middle of the open-space would probably be frowned upon, but drawing and doodling.

The result is a whole bunch of post-it notes with some pretty decent art, which I’ve collected over on a “Meeting Notes” page. Check it out!

Wikked Performance

Since I announced Wikked here, I’ve been mostly working on fixing bugs, editing the documentation1, and evaluating its performance – which is what we’ll look at here today.

The big question I wanted to answer was how far you can go with just the default configuration, which is based on SQLite and requires no setup from the user. The reason for this was twofold:

  • I needed to write some advice in the documentation about when you should start looking into more sophisticated setups.
  • I plan to setup a public test wiki where people can try Wikked directly, and I needed to know if it would go down after I post the link on Reddit or HackerNews.

Initial assessment

The first thing I did was to figure out the current status of the code. For this, I took the first stress-test service I could find (which was Load Impact), and got my own private wiki tested.

  • This private wiki runs on the same server as this blog, which is a fairly under-powered server since almost all of my public websites are just static files, thanks to PieCrust: it’s a Linode VPS with only 512Mb of RAM.
  • The test requests a dozen different pages from the website, continually for around 10 seconds, with only a fraction of a second between each request. It increases the number of “users” running that test over time.

Here are some of the results:

As you can see, as the number of concurrent users increases, loading a page stays on average under a second, at 800ms. Then, around 20 concurrent users, things break down horribly and it can take between 3 and 10 seconds to load a page.

For a website running with SQLite on a server so small that Linode doesn’t even offer it anymore2, and designed mainly for private use, I think it’s pretty good. I mean, I initially didn’t plan for Wikked to run for groups larger than 10 or 15 people, let alone 20 people at the same time!

Still, I can obviously do better.

Request profiling

Werkzeug supports easy profiling of requests, so I added an option for that and looked at the output in QCacheGrind3. As I thought, pretty much all the time is spent running the SQL query to get the cached page, so there’s little opportunity to optimize the overall application’s Python code.

In Wikked, SQL queries are done through SQLAlchemy. This is because even though those queries are simple enough that even I could write them by hand, there are subtle differences in SQL dialects depending on the database implementation, especially when it comes to schema creation. I figured I would bypass the ORM layer if I need to in the future.

SQLAlchemy can be forced to log all SQL queries it generates, and that highlighted many simple problems. I won’t go into details but it boiled down to:

  • A couple of unnecessary extra queries, which came from my object model lazily loading stuff from the database when it didn’t need to.
  • Loading more columns than needed for the most common use-case of reading a page. Some of them would generate JOIN statements, too.

I also realized I was doing my main query against an un-indexed column, so I changed the schema accordingly… derp duh derp (I’m a n00b at this stuff).


Now I was ready to run some more stress tests and see if those optimizations made a difference. But although Load Impact is a very cool service, it’s also a commercial service and I was running out of free tests. I didn’t want to spend money on this, since this is all just hobby stuff, so I looked for an alternative I could setup myself.

I found a pretty neat library called FunkLoad, which does functional and load testing. Perfect!

I started 4 Amazon EC2 instances, wrote an equivalent test script, and ran the test. To make it work, I had to install FunkLoad from source (as opposed to from pip), and troubleshoot some problems, but it worked OK in the end.

Without my optimizations, I got slightly better average page loads than before – probably coming from the fact that both my EC2 instances and my Linode server were on the west coast, whereas Load Impact was running from the east coast.

With the optimizations, however, it looked a lot better:

As you can see, Wikked on my small server can now serve 40 concurrent users without breaking a sweat: 300ms on average, and always less than 1s. And it could probably handle up to 50 or 60 concurrent users if you extrapolate the data a bit.

Moar hardware!

Next, I figured I would try to see if it made any difference to run the same setup (Wikked on SQLite) on a beefier server. I launched an EC2 instance that’s way better than my Linode VPS, with 3Gb of RAM and 2 vCPUs.

Well: yes, it does make a difference. This bigger server can serve 80 concurrent users while staying under the 1 second mark most of the time. Yay!


Those numbers may not seem like much but this is as good a time as any to remind you that:

  • I’m sticking to sub-1s times as the limit, because I like fast websites. But I could easily move the limit up to 1.5 seconds and still be within a generally acceptable range (e.g. from my home laptop, Wikipedia serves its pages in around 1.3 seconds).
  • This is about testing the most simple Wikked setup, based on SQLite, because that means the easiest install experience ever compared to other wikis that need a proper SQL server. And SQLite is notoriously limited in terms of concurrent access.
  • Serving even just 40 concurrent users is actually quite high. If you consider, say, 10 minutes per visit on average, that’s around 240 visitors per hour, or 1920 visitors per day if they’re all going to be mostly coming from the same time zone. That’s more than 50.000 visitors a month4.

Still, this is my first real web application, so there’s probably even more room for improvement. I’m always open to suggestions and constructive criticism, so check-out the code and see if you can spot anything stupid!

In the meantime, I’ve got some documentation to update, and a public test wiki to setup!

  1. It’s still missing a custom theme and a fancy logo, by the way. That will be coming as soon as I have any actual idea of what to do there! ↩︎

  2. That’s a referral link, by the way. ↩︎

  3. It’s not a typo. QCacheGrind is a Qt version of KCacheGrind, so that you don’t need to install KDE libraries, and it looks slightly less terrible. ↩︎

  4. The real issue is however how your site will behave if all of a sudden a lot of those visitors arrive at the same time. This is probably not uncommon if you have the kind of wiki where there can be announcements posted to a mailing list or a Facebook group, which can in turn get a lot of members to click the same link. ↩︎