From the Globe: The man who invented the iPad in 1994

From the Boston Globe, April 1994: Roger Fidler and a prototype tablet

While everyone else was swagging out at SXSW, the Washington Post ran a great piece over the weekend on Roger Fidler, a journalist who set up an innovation lab at Knight Ridder in the early 1990s with the goal of producing a tablet computer on which you could read newspapers. Fidler's vision for the machine in those years will sound as familiar to current audiences as it was alien to his own time, before the internet was a thing that everyone used: he envisioned a lightweight device, a touch-screen, and a high-def interface combining text and video. In 1994, Fidler's group thought they'd have a "computer-based version of the tablet before the end of the year." The reason that's significant in 2012? Fidler's work is now being cited as a defense by Samsung, which is being sued by Apple. Apple says Samsung stole its idea for the iPad. Samsung says Fidler's design put the tablet-computer concept into the public domain in 1994. 

The quote about the prototype being released by 1995 comes from a Boston Globe article (warning: behind the paywall) on Fidler that ran on April 8, 1994. A photocopy of this article has been sitting in my office for a couple years; it's a reminder that a) the first time you lay eyes on a visionary he looks like a crazy person, and b) how mundane the fantastical can seem in retrospect. In the photo accompanying the article, Fidler's holding a cardboard mock-up that looks extraordinarily close to an iPad. "Imagine reading this [article] on a hard plastic tablet the size of a tabloid newspaper, laid out with the familiar Globe headlines, typefaces, photos and graphics," reads the story, bylined by Michael Putzel. "Pretend you get to the bottom of this story and find the words: 'PLUGGED IN, Page 68.' Touch it, and the black-on-white screen instantly converts to an 'inside page,' where the rest of the column appears with other news and a couple of ads. Finish the column, touch an ad and watch it become a full-motion color video, with a voice extolling the cirtues of the latest computer or pocket pager. Or check out a restaurant ad on another page and peuse the menu. As you reach your subway stop, drop the tablet in your briefcase, and when you get a minute free, pull it out and load up the New York Times, Time magazine, or Ski."

This was Fidler's vision of the future. Yes, it sounds familiar. But here's a few things that are significant to recall about the day that article was written. First of all, there was no -- the Globe was more than a year away from launching a website. In the same article, Putzel thumbnailed the prevailing strategies that newspapers were examining: "Some are jumping into the online market, offering stripped-down versions of themselves to computer users via the various commercial networks. Others, including the Boston Globe, are starting fax newspapers or moving into cable television anda variety of telephone information services."

Let's stop there for a second: it's 1994, there's no, and the Globe is thinking about faxing you the news. Or maybe having you call in to get it. And Fidler's already at the iPad.

I'm not ridiculing the Globe, by the way: by thinking about faxes and phones, they were essentially thinking past the unthinkable explosion of the internet and making a bet on what probably seemed to be the future at the time -- mobile and telecom technology, which had already gotten pretty social-networky by that point. Meanwhile, online news was practically prenatal: Putzel's article mentioned that the flashiest thing in news startups at the time was Access Atlanta, a proto-city-portal site that had just been launched by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Prodigy -- but he complained that "Prodigy advertisements constantly flash across a large chunk of the screen and disrupt efforts to concentrate on the small window where news . . . appears." 

The point is how mind-boggling it was for Fidler to have had his flash of inspiration about the future of news -- to have gotten it right before any of the tools or strategies or networks that would eventually make it possible were in use.

(Here's another tidbit from the Globe article, which I'd be fascinated to hear more about: in 1994, Putzel wrote, "The Boston Globe is one of several newspapers participating in a very different approach: a $6.5 million, five-year study at the Massachuestts Institute of Technology's Media Lab that is trying to sort out what people are going to want from their newspapers in the future." If someone over at MIT ever figured that out, there are several hundred newspapers who'd still be interested in a satisfactory answer.)

It turns out that Fidler's work on the tablet is linked more than theoretically to the Samsung suit: during the time he was developing his tablet idea, Knight Ridder's next door neighbor was none other than -- you guessed it -- Apple. "[Apple], too, was thinking about the future of media in its own lab," the Post reports. And newspapers weren't the only ones struggling to conceive of what the future would hold for portable computers. Apple was working on a touch-screen device, too, but it turned out to be one of the company's biggest failures, the Post notes, even though Fidler's people actually collaborated on it. The device in question? "Knight-Ridder’s lab worked on ideas for providing news to Apple’s ill-fated hand-held Newton." 

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