An update on the Fresh Comics 3.0 beta

An update on the Fresh Comics 3.0 beta

April 24, 2013

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front since I started doing serious development on the latest iteration of Fresh Comics. I'm happy to report that the Android version has reached the beta testing phase and I've been testing the app with friends and family.

If you'd like to see what it looks like, I've set up a Pinterest board of screenshots:

I want to highlight a few features that make this version of the app different than the one currently shipping:

1. New content types. The old version of Fresh Comics had 4 main content types: publishers, issues, shops, and events. This new version introduces three more: creators (writers & artists), conventions, and convention schedules.

Issue views in Fresh Comics now include links to each creator and from the creator's page, you can see their past work as well as web links to destinations like Twitter and personal web sites.

The conventions are much like the shop pages – you can find conventions around you, when they're open for business, and links to resources like web pages, Twitter accounts, and more. I've also been working with convention runners to add their guest lists to Fresh Comics so you can see who will be on Artists' Alley this weekend. Furthermore, I'm in the process of wrapping up a deluxe convention offering where show runners can pay to include even more details like their panel schedules and floor maps.

2. An updated user interface. When I wrote the original version of Fresh Comics, I was targeting the user interface introduced by the original Motorola Droid (remember this?). In the past couple of years, Android's user interface conventions have matured and this release takes full advantage of the Holo look-and-feel. Furthermore, I've worked hard to test the app on a variety of form factors. Fresh Comics is now a proper Android tablet application and works great on 10" & 7" tablets.

3. Improved database technology. The original version of Fresh Comics was driven from a single XML file with links to cover images. As I expanded the scope of the application, I introduced more XML files for shops and events. The downside to this approach was that the content visible in the app was a function of what was in the last XML document. This limited the issues you could view to a 3-week window and the local instances of the app had no idea what shops were beyond the general vicinity without communicating with the server.

In Fresh Comics 3.0, I've swapped out this infrastructure for a more robust database-driven framework. The new version of Fresh Comics still fetches new content from the server, but it also maintains a local database of issues, shops, and more and generates the interface from the contents of the local database. This has several advantages.

The first advantage is that your local database can now accumulate more information the longer you use the app. Was there an Iron Man variant from last month that you'd like to look at again? In the new app, that information remains on your device. How about locating shops in areas with poor-to-nonexistent wireless coverage? Your device has a local copy of the shop database and you can use it without an online connection. Are you at a convention looking for information about a panel, but ten-thousand attendees have swamped the wireless networks? Not a problem – the app synced the latest details while you were sleeping the night before in your hotel room.

The second advantage to this arrangement is that the app should be more responsive while providing much more information. The old Fresh Comics read the XML file and imported all that information into memory. The current version only loads the information when it needs it.

The third advantage to the new database technology is that it allows me to build other content types on top of it. In the old Fresh Comics, you had a favorites list, and that was it. In the new version, the app comes preloaded with a favorites list, a shopping list, and a wishlist. If you want something else (perhaps an "unintentionally funny" list), you can create a new one just by giving it a name. Furthermore, since the local database is quite similar to my server database, I'll be able to synchronize between the two and you'll be able to review your lists online as well as on-device.

The only drawback to this approach is that when you first launch Fresh Comics, the app will spend several minutes fetching the initial database. However, once that's complete, the app will update its contents transparently, so you shouldn't have to look for a refresh button again.

4. Fresh Comics user accounts. While you can opt-out of using this feature on first launch, creating a Fresh Comics user account will allow you to synchronize preferences and lists between devices, add release dates and events to your favorite calendar, and receive recommendations about other issues and creators you may enjoy based upon what similar kinds of readers prefer. I have big plans for these user accounts and now is the first time that you can create one.

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This new version is a 100% fresh rewrite of the original codebase, and took me the larger part of two months to put together. The Android version is the new flagship for the Fresh Comics collection and the (functional) template that I'll be using when I tackle the iPhone/iPad & Windows 8 versions during the summer. There's a lot of new code (all of it, actually) and if you're an Android user, I could use your assistance testing it before I release it to the wider Google, Amazon and Nook marketplaces. If you're interested in getting your hands on the new features now, you can sign up as a tester here.

For the Windows and iOS users, keep an eye on this space for new versions for your platforms. I delayed the start of work on the iOS versions until after the first week of June when I'll learn more about Apple's stylistic plans for iOS. (I didn't want to spend a lot of time targeting an obsolete UI theme if I could help it.) Once we see what Sir Jony Ive has in mind, I'll start work on that app. Like the Android version, the iOS version will target both tablets and phones from the start and should provide a good experience on all screens.

For the Windows folks, I'm still planning on a new version for both the phone and desktop (Metro) versions of Windows 8. My Nokia Lumia 920 Windows Phone platform is still my favorite smartphone, and I'm excited to see happens when Fresh Comics is available on the desktop. Unfortunately, that version is last on my priority list given the small existing user base, and I'm targeting a late summer release for that app.

Let me know if I can answer any questions!

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