In 1981, Roger Fidler wrote a visionary essay on the emergence of mobile reading devices like the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle. CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked to Fidler, who now runs the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Digital Publishing Alliance, about his early predictions and the journalism industry’s long and fitful involvement in the development of tablets and e-readers.

Curtis Brainard: What inspired your 1981 essay?

Roger Fidler: At the time, I was the director of design for what became the first online service in the U.S., Viewtron. It was essentially an experiment by Knight-Ridder to see what kind of interest there would be in online access to news and information. It was a very sophisticated system for its time. Back in the late seventies and early eighties lots of people were already talking about digital technology replacing print.

About that time, I also had an opportunity to see the first prototypes of an active matrix liquid crystal display. They’ve been used since the 1990s for all the portable computers. The prototype was developed at Westinghouse Labs. One of the inventors came to Knight Ridder early in 1981 hoping to get funding for a company he was starting called Panel Vision to make a handheld device using this technology. The company didn’t succeed. There weren’t any fabrication plants then that could efficiently manufacture the LCD displays for the handheld device. But it seemed obvious to me that if that technology was already being developed, at some point there would be a magazine-size version of it.

As it turned out, The Associated Press Managing Editors association invited editors and designers to weigh in for a special report it was doing on what newspapers might be like in the year 2000. I was one of the designers invited to write an essay on what newspapers might look like. I’d been thinking about it for quite a while, so I created a mockup of what I thought an electronic newspaper might look like and a reading device that I called a portable flat panel. I reasoned that it would have to be magazine-size, lightweight and thin. The pages had headlines with summaries and photos that were laid out in a way similar to a printed newspaper. When you touched the summaries, the full text of the stories with adjacent advertising would appear on the screen.
I expected that by the year 2000, online would be dominant and all newspapers would have online editions, which turned out to be true. But I also expected that by 2000, people would be able to read newspapers on the portable reading devices that I called flat panels.

CB: Throughout the 1980s you worked on a number of digital media projects, from Videotex to PressLink, and eventually founded the Knight Ridder Information Design Lab in 1992, which worked on e-readers. How did that come about?

RF: In 1991, I was accepted into the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center’s fellowship program at Columbia University, so I took a year off to do research on the direction new media was headed and on my book, Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media. During my year at Columbia, I used a database program that was available on Macintosh computers to produce the first working demonstration of my vision of the tablet newspaper.

At the end of my fellowship year, I went back to Knight-Ridder and proposed that they create a skunk works—a lab where we could investigate emerging technologies for newspapers and continue to pursue my vision of the tablet newspaper. I convinced Knight Ridder to fund establishment of the Information Design Lab in Boulder, Colorado, which I ran from 1992 to 1995 as the corporate director of new media. I reported directly to Jim Batten, who was chairman of Knight-Ridder at the time.

My main focus was on how newspapers could make the transition from ink-on-paper to digital. We were never interested in developing our own hardware. What we were trying to do was get other companies to build them. Apple quietly opened up a lab adjacent to our lab in Boulder. We worked with them on developing content for the Newton, which was Apple’s first attempt to market a handheld display device.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.