Embarking on third retirement, Fidler reflects on tech evolutions, his 1981 prediction about tablets

Roger Fidler, an internationally recognized new media pioneer and visionary, recently retired as program director for digital publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. His distinguished journalism career spanned more than half a century.

Fidler is best known as the man who envisioned tablets in 1981, nearly 30 years before the emergence of Apple iPads and Amazon Kindles. He predicted that online media and portable electronic reading devices would have a profound impact on newspapers in the first decade of the 21st century.

His prediction proved to be uncannily accurate.

At the time, Fidler was director of graphics and newsroom technology for Knight-Ridder, then one of the largest and most respected newspaper groups in the United States, and graphics consultant on the company’s project team that was developing and market-testing Viewtron, one of the earliest forerunners of the Web.

Despite the skepticism initially expressed by his colleagues, Fidler continued to refine and promote his vision of tablets and electronic newspapers. In 1994, his team at the Knight-Ridder Information Design Lab, which he founded and directed, produced a video titled “The Tablet Newspaper Vision” that demonstrated how interactive, multimedia newspapers might appear on a tablet. The device shown in the video bore a striking resemblance to the iPad that Steve Jobs introduced in 2010. The video went viral on the Web and has been used by Samsung and other companies to challenge Apple’s patent on the design of its tablets and smartphones.

Though Fidler is mostly identified with tablets, he also was an accomplished journalist, newspaper designer and information graphic artist, as well as a pragmatic innovator and entrepreneur on the leading edge of the digital revolution in newspapers.

In recognition of his many achievements, Fidler was selected as the inaugural RJI Fellow in 2004. His project involved designing and conducting a 10-week field test of his tablet newspaper vision, which he called eMprint (electronic media print), using editorial content from the Columbia Missourian newspaper. 

“This was my first attempt to demonstrate the potential of electronic newspapers optimized for reading on tablets and other mobile devices in a live environment,” he says.

Upon completion of his fellowship year, Fidler was hired by RJI to direct digital publishing research projects. In 2006, he founded the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance (DPA), which at its peak included more than 30 news organizations including The New York Times, Center for Public Integrity and Tampa Bay Times (formerly St. Petersburg Times). Between 2006 and 2014, he hosted DPA meetings and conferences at RJI and other locations. He also produced nearly 50 digital newsbooks at RJI based on the eMprint model, and conducted mobile media research for DPA members. His reports on the results of RJI’s Mobile Media News Consumption surveys have been among the most popular items on RJI’s website. Dr. Esther Thorson, RJI director of research, is taking over Fidler’s mobile media research project. 

Q&A with Fidler

RJI Senior Information Specialist Jennifer Nelson asked Fidler to reflect on his 1981 prediction, technological evolutions over the past years, and what he foresees for the future.

Q: Are today’s tablets all that you envisioned them to be back in the 1980s and 1990s? What remains to be done?

FIDLER: The tablet I envisioned in 1981 and visualized in the 1994 “Tablet Newspaper Vision” video had nearly the same form factors and functionality as the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle Fire. It also shared Steve Jobs’ assumption that tablets would be used primarily for consuming and interacting with content. Tablets today are much more versatile and powerful than I originally imagined. However, since 2005, smartphones have rapidly evolved to take on many of the tablet features. That’s especially true for a new class of smartphones with larger displays called “phablets.”

Another version of my original tablet vision that has evolved rapidly in the past few years is the e-reader, which relies on e-ink technology. What I would like to see next is a thin, lightweight e-ink device with the dimensions of letter-size paper that could be used as an alternative to printers, copiers and fax machines for displaying and storing documents. I’ve always believed that such devices could greatly reduce our dependence on pulp paper for the myriad of ephemeral documents that people churn out every day.

Q: How did you come to envision a tablet? Why not a smartphone or something else?

FIDLER: Back in 1981 all telephones in the U.S. were hardwired to walls and nearly all were leased to customers by AT&T. There were no cell phones or broadband wireless services. The few personal computers that existed were primitive and expensive. The Internet was still unknown outside of government research facilities and universities, and the Web had not yet been invented.

My focus was not on building communication devices. It always was on the digital future of newspapers and on the emergence of portable display devices that could economically provide publishers and readers with digital newspapers that blended the compelling interactive features of online media with the familiar characteristics of printed newspapers.

My vision of tablets began to take shape in the summer of 1981, a few months before IBM introduced its first personal computer. The Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) association asked several hundred prominent newspaper editors and designers to submit essays predicting what newspapers might be like 20 years hence at the beginning of the 21st century.

At about the same time, a Knight-Ridder vice president gave me a prospectus he had received for Panelvision, a startup venture intent on bringing a new display technology to market. The technology was the Active Matrix Liquid Crystal Display (AMLCD). Most flat-screen television sets and computer monitors, along with a whole host of electronic display devices, owe their existence to this invention.

As I read the prospectus, I began imagining how electronic newspapers might look on magazine-size flat panels. Using mechanical ink pens, rubdown display type, and text segments cannibalized from discarded paste-ups of Miami Herald broadsheet pages, I created mockups of a front page and an inside page to illustrate how an interactive electronic newspaper might look in an 8½-inch by 11-inch tablet format.

My illustrated essay was among those APME selected to publish in a 48-page special report titled “The Changing Newspaper — Year 2000,” which the association distributed at its 1981 convention in Toronto, Canada, on October 20th to 22nd. The initial response from my colleagues was nearly unanimous skepticism. But that did not dissuade me from continuing to think about my vision while I pursued more immediate technology-based business opportunities for Knight-Ridder.

Q: Did any newspapers adopt your eMprint model after Apple launched the iPad tablet five years later in 2010?

FIDLER: More than 5,000 people worldwide registered to participate in the eMprint Missourian field test. We know that many of the participants were journalists, media executives and entrepreneurs who went on to develop or work on news products for the iPad and other similar tablets. The eMprint model was essentially a hybrid of print newspapers and the Web. We took full advantage of Adobe InDesign and Acrobat to produce easy-to-navigate, curated packages of visually rich, interactive multimedia content.

We also used the Acrobat tools to produce innovative ads that went well beyond flat print ads and Web banner ads. Several news organizations, including News Corp. and The New York Times, launched tablet newspaper editions very similar to the eMprint model soon after Apple launched the iPad. However, since then there has been a dearth of innovation in tablet newspapers. Nearly all news organizations have opted to forgo tablet editions produced by editors and designers in favor of automation tools that simply flow Web content into limited sets of templates. While this approach has greatly reduced costs, it has made tablet editions much less compelling. Especially disappointing has been the lack of informational and explanatory graphics, and innovative advertising approaches.

Q: Can you envision a form factor for news and information that comes next, or supplants or replaces tablets and/or smartphones?

FIDLER: Tablets and smartphones are likely to be the predominant electronic media for news consumption for at least the next 20 to 30 years. Immersive and wearable media look promising, but I don’t believe they will replace tablets and smartphones anytime soon.

Q: In watching and helping evolve digital news media for 40 years, what surprised you? What didn’t you see coming? What changed, or changed faster, that you hadn’t expected? 

FIDLER: I didn’t expect the technologies for wireless broadband communication and low-cost, high-capacity solid-state memory to develop so quickly. Few people in the 1980s and even in the 1990s could have imagined that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century people around the world would be watching and sharing videos wirelessly on mobile phones and tablets, and would have the ability to store full-length movies, thousands of photos and a plethora of information on memory chips smaller than a human thumb.

Q: What is the most significant change you’ve seen in those 40 years?

FIDLER: The rapid and extensive disruptions of nearly all established businesses, organizations and institutions by the Internet and digital media. 

Q: What changes or evolution in news creation and consumption do you envision for the next 10 years? Twenty years?

FIDLER: More than anything we have seen in the past two decades.

Q: What are you doing now that you are retired?

FIDLER: Actually this is my third retirement. I took early retirement from Knight-Ridder in 1995 after 21 years with the company. In 2005, I retired from Kent State University after nine years as a tenured professor of journalism and information design. For me, retirement has never been about moving to Sun City or endlessly playing golf.

I have begun writing a book about the digital transformation of newspapers and exploring a possible sequel to my 1997 book “Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media.” My wife Ada and I also have begun to build a business focused on translating books by Latin American authors from Spanish to English and publishing them as e-books. Ada was a reporter for the largest newspaper in Peru when we met back in 1987. We are calling the business “FidlerHouse Digital Books.” Our first book,“Tungula’s Gift” by Abelardo Núñez, is now available in Spanish and English. We hope to launch FidlerHouse.com by the end of this year.


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