behind the news

The Man Who Imagined Tablets and E-Readers

An interview with Roger Fidler of the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance
June 17, 2010

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?

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

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?

RF: What has surprised me most is the rapid development of broadband wireless. That was something nobody was even thinking about back in the 1970s and 1980s. Cell phones were just starting to be developed in the late eighties and it was assumed that wireless would be very expensive for quite a while. So replacing newsstands with digital kiosks seemed like the only alternative for giving people access to fairly large files. That wasn’t something you’d be able to download with dial-up modems. We figured it would be easier for people to use kiosks at airports, train stations, shopping malls, and bookstores to have newspapers and magazines transferred to their reading device very quickly. That made sense back in the 1980s and 1990s. Clearly, broadband wireless technology has overtaken all of that.

Another thing I underestimated was the storage capacity that would be available on small devices. In the 1981 article I was talking about a device that could store several hundred pages of a newspaper. I did not anticipate that the storage capacity would be in the gigabyte and possibility terabyte range at this point. The hard drives that were being used in the 1970s and early 1980s for newspaper editing systems were very expensive. I remember large platters that stored eighty-eight megabytes, which today would be nothing. We kept being told that solid-state memory was going to be a very expensive thing to develop, but clearly that didn’t turned out to be true.

CB: And what do you think of the news industry’s foresight, writ large, along this front? Were publishers quick enough on the uptake where mobile reading devices were concerned?

RF: From 1992 through 1995, when I ran the lab, we were visited by newspaper executives from around the world. We met with analysts who told us that the lab was worth several points to Knight-Ridder in the stock market because it indicated to investors that newspapers were thinking about the future and preparing for it. I was invited to speak at conferences all over the world. So the enthusiasm was there.

The tablet concept immediately resonated with most publishers. They could see the potential there–that if they could produce a product for these devices, they could save in printing and distribution costs. But when the Web became a very popular medium toward the end on the nineties, publishers’ focus shifted to producing Web sites and managing their Web content. Many newspapers made the mistake early on of believing that if they just built up traffic on their sites, they could generate lots of revenue from advertising. Of course, that hasn’t materialized, and now it’s easy in hindsight for most publishers to look back and say we probably shouldn’t have given all of our content away for free. But at the time it seemed like a logical course.

CB: You launched the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance around the same time as the Kindle was launched in November 2007, right? What has the Alliance learned and/or accomplished since then?

RF: We actually had our first meeting a year earlier in October of 2006. We brought people to the Reynolds Journalism Institute from different newspapers and organizations to talk about whether there was a need for an organization to take a more proactive role in the development of content for emerging e-readers. By that time there were already a couple of e-readers on the market, but none of them were wireless. We also were conducting a field text of my digital newspaper concept using the Columbia Missourian, a community newspaper affiliated with the Missouri School of Journalism.

In January 2007, we officially launched the Alliance at RJI as a member-supported initiative. Our initial efforts involved exchanging information among the members and looking at models and strategies for producing products that could be sold on e-readers. Then came the Kindle in November 2007. The organization has grown steadily since then.

We have around thirty members now, mostly newspapers. We’ve been working with members to get their products onto various mobile reading devices for several years. And we’ve been working on automation tools that make the production process easier. My belief is that newspapers will need to produce a number of different products—not just the daily products for iPads and other tablets and e-readers. And they will need to attract advertisers as well as subscribers to make their digital products successful. We’re working with several newspapers to demonstrate some other capabilities we might be able to do with apps beyond just doing the daily edition of the paper.

One of the products we’re calling Digital Newsbooks, which are investigative journalism projects repackaged as visually rich e-books that can be read on any PC, e-reader, iPad app or mobile device that supports PDF.

We’re also preparing to launch a national iPad survey in July. We hope to collect data for several years to track how satisfaction and usage patterns change over time. The data we gather and analyze should be very helpful to news organizations and technology companies. You’ll be able to find more information about the survey on the Institute’s Web site.

CB: How do you see tablets and e-readers evolving with regard to the news business over the next five to ten years?

RF: Clearly, we’ll see full color e-paper displays within a year or so. The color won’t be as rich as you have on the iPad. It’s more like newsprint color from what I’ve seen so far. And the price of devices is going to come down pretty dramatically. I expect that the book-size e-readers will be under $100 in the next couple of years. The price point will get down to where people will see it as quite affordable.

I don’t think e-readers will come to match the iPad’s capabilities, and in fact they probably shouldn’t. The e-reader is intended to be a single-purpose device that is fairly easy to use. Efforts to make them more like the iPad could actually hasten their demise because I think it’s the simplicity that people are really looking for, especially for reading books.

The iPad will be where development is going to be the most intense over the next few years. We’ll certainly see other manufacturers with tablets probably using the Android system. But I think Apple is going to dominate the tablet market for the next five years at least. In that time, the iPad and tablets will get lighter, thinner, and more versatile, just like the original iPod. And they will get much cheaper. I think iPad-like tablets will become popular around the world. I still believe they could become the preferred medium for reading newspapers and magazines by 2020.

CB: Do you think publishers and news outlets are going to commit to these devices in a way they didn’t when you were at the Information Design Lab?

RF: Oh, I think they’re clearly committed to using these devices. There is a lot of confusion about when to jump in and how much they want to commit to them. My sense is that most newspapers are looking to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and maybe USA Today to test the waters first and determine if there is a solid market there before they jump in. I suspect it’s going to be a tough one for midsize newspapers to deal with.

The national newspapers clearly have the advantage of being able to provide the constant updates of national and international news. And they will be the ones that will attract the national advertising, which is going to be critical to their success. The metros have more of a challenge to take full advantage of the tablet. Their advertising support has been eroded a great deal by the mergers of department stores, grocery stores, and chains that used to provide much of the display advertising that went into their papers. They also have undergone the most extreme downsizing in recent years, so most now lack the staff required to tackle new projects.

I would definitely expect to see fewer printed newspapers in the next five to ten years. That’s inevitable. If the tablet can generate revenue from advertising anywhere close to what they have in print, that will only hasten this transition. Publishers don’t want it to happen too quickly; they want it to be a gradual transition because they have such a huge investment in their printing plants and distribution networks. But I think they’re all looking forward to the day when they can go all digital. As I’ve always said, this doesn’t mean the death of newspapers. Newspapers are essentially branded, curated packages of news and information. Paper is really just a display medium. The screen on a tablet is also just a display medium.

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