We also worked closely with other companies like Toshiba and Sony on the tablet concept, which they eagerly pursued up through 1995. In fact, Toshiba built a tablet for me that they sort of jokingly referred to as the million-dollar tablet because they only made a few of them. But after Jim Batten died at the end of June in 1995, Tony Ridder decided to consolidate operations in San Jose. They offered me the opportunity to go there, but I decided I would leave and continue to pursue my vision of the tablet. The lab was closed at the end of July 1995. Sadly, Toshiba interpreted that as newspapers were no longer interested in a tablet device and stopped working on it. We might have had tablets sooner if they had continued to work on it.
CB: It’s interesting you should say that. I read a New York Times article from 1995 about the lab’s closing, which explained that Knight Ridder really wanted to focus all its attention on the Web. It raised the question in my mind: Given that the Web ushered in the era of declining revenues in the news business, and that now publishers are looking at tablets as a way to finally rebuild those revenues, do you feel a certain vindication—that after all these years, the news industry has finally caught on to what you were saying all along?
RF: Obviously, it is satisfying to be recognized for what I have done and to see the reality of it, but I won’t really feel vindicated until newspapers can actually turn things around and use the technology more effectively. I’ve always believed that the value of a newspaper lies more in its branded, curated package of news and information rather than in atomized content, so I was very concerned when the Web began to favor the latter. The brain drain and financial stress on newspapers that resulted was worse than I expected. So, I’m eager to work with newspapers now to help them find their way with tablets and e-readers.
CB: A 1994 video titled “The Tablet Newspaper: A Vision for the Future” produced by the Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab shows a tablet that has an uncanny resemblance to the iPad, including embedded videos and the ability to tap on the summary of a story and call up the whole article. How did you come up with it?
RF: At the lab, we had been working on the basic concept—the whole information architecture for a newspaper displayed on a tablet. We were creating tools at the lab that could be used to produce electronic editions for such a device. We felt that a video would help people, especially newspaper executives, visualize the concept. To produce the video we had a design company create a tablet mockup using molded plastic.
The company produced about a half a dozen of them for demonstrations based on our specs. Using the power of video, we were able to put pages on the screen. These were not digital, these were printed images made to appear as if they were real. It worked so well that lots of people thought it was actually a real tablet. After the video started circulating, we had people offering to invest in us, wanting to buy the tablet, and wanting to develop newspapers for it. We had to keep explaining that, no, it was just a vision of what we were anticipating. I firmly believe, based on the response we got to that video, that had Apple had something like the iPad on the market in 1994 or 1995, they would’ve been selling like hot cakes then, too.
CB: Do you think your early work has influenced today’s tablets and e-readers?
RF: From the developers I’ve talked to, and even some of the people who are at Apple, the vision that I presented from 1981 on has had some influence on the development of tablets and e-readers. Lots of people have seen my work. I believe the image that I created helped people to visualize how a mobile reading device might look and function.
It’s interesting how things like this can define people’s lives. You often don’t know at the time that something you’re doing is going to influence your whole destiny. That one article that I did for APME in 1981 really ended up defining my career, even though there are other things I did that I think were equally significant or perhaps more significant. But the tablet is what I will probably be associated with for the rest of my life. They might even put a tablet on my tombstone.
CB: What about the evolution of tablets and e-readers has surprised you?