Seeing the Future  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2011

Seeing the Future   

Decades before the debut of the iPad, Roger Fidler was an evangelist for the tablet as news device. Tues., November 29, 2011

By Morgan Gibson
Morgan Gibson (mgibson@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


Could Roger Fidler see into the future?

Thirty years ago, the journalist and new-media trailblazer envisioned the news and technology industries working together as one. The distribution and consumption of news, as Fidler saw it, would leave the printing presses behind and instead take place through futuristic reading devices.

"These devices, known as 'flat panels' or 'tablets,' will combine the readability and convenience of paper with the technological abilities of video and sound. In the same way that ink-on-paper printing has defined the present era, it now appears certain that electronic 'presses' and multimedia publishing will define the new one," Fidler wrote in an October 1992 AJR article called "What Are We So Afraid Of?"

Sound familiar?

The ideas he describes in the 1992 article, and in an article we wrote about him in October 1994, seemed a tad peculiar nearly 20 years ago, but they basically describe the current state of affairs today.

And the reading devices he proposed? Fidler essentially prophesied Apple's iPad.

In the 1980s Fidler's vision was generally seen as "science fiction that would not become real for more than a century," says Fidler, who runs the Digital Publishing Alliance at the University of Missouri's Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. "One of my Knight Ridder colleagues referred to it as a 'nutball idea.' By the 1990s the idea didn't seem so crazy."

But now, with tablets revolutionizing the entire media industry, Fidler is getting some recognition for his "nutball idea." In October, the Society for News Design presented Fidler, a founding member of SND, with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his groundbreaking and innovative work.

Fidler, 68, started his journalism career in 1962 writing and illustrating a science column for Oregon's Eugene Register-Guard. The following year, he also began writing feature stories and creating maps for the paper while attending the University of Oregon. Fidler had originally planned to become an astronomer, but a chronic illness that he developed in high school forced him to switch his major to journalism.

Fidler dropped out of school in 1966 and took a job in Tokyo as an art director and later as a Sunday magazine editor for Pacific Stars and Stripes. He went on to work at various publications, including the St. Petersburg Times and the Detroit Free Press.

Fidler's visions of mobile reading devices first popped up in an essay he wrote in 1981 for Associated Press Managing Editors describing, from a designer's perspective, what newspapers might look like in the year 2000.

At the time, Fidler was the director of design for Viewtron, a Knight Ridder/AT&T experiment with videotex. At Knight Ridder, Fidler was able to see some of the first prototypes for handheld devices. He created tablet mockups in the 1980s, envisioning a thin, lightweight, instant on/instant off touch-screen tablet.

Filder took significant steps to make this vision a reality. In 1990 he produced an animated video of a tablet newspaper scenario in collaboration with RayChem, a company that was developing an electronic paper display technology. A year later, Fidler became a Freedom Forum Media Studies Fellow at Columbia University. There he created an operational prototype of a digital newspaper optimized for his media tablet. He frequently demonstrated the prototype on Macintosh computers.

From there, Fidler took his ideas to Colorado. In 1992, as director of new-media technology at Knight Ridder, Fidler opened the Knight Ridder Information Design Lab in Boulder. He assembled a team of journalists, researchers, designers and technologists to pursue digital newspaper concepts and work with tech companies on the media tablet vision. While there, he produced a video, "The Tablet Newspaper: A Vision for the Future," which showcased how people might use tablets to read newspapers and magazines, and distributed about 200 copies.

However, Fidler's efforts at the Colorado lab would soon come to a close. Knight Ridder Chairman James K. Batten, who was his "corporate champion," Fidler says, died of brain cancer in June 1995. A month later, the lab closed, and Fidler left the company.

But this obstacle wouldn't inhibit Fidler he was a man on a tablet mission.

His book "Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media," was published in 1997, and included a scenario that predicted the rapid adoption of media tablets in 2010. Fidler continued to pursue his vision at Kent State University from 1996 to 2004, and then at the Reynolds Journalism Institute until 2010.

For two decades, Fidler was a frequent speaker at newspaper and technology conferences worldwide, and he wrote numerous articles about media tablets. Fidler has also received international acclaim; recently he was named the DeTao Master for New Media and Digital Publishing by the Beijing DeTao Masters Academy.

In addition to receiving a plethora of awards and honors, Fidler has the pleasure of seeing his ideas gain massive popularity and use. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, just 18 months after the iPad's release, 11 percent of adults in the United States now own a tablet computer of some kind and about half get news on their tablet every day.

While Fidler said in an e-mail interview that he's "happy to finally see my vision become real," he's not thrilled to see newspapers "struggling to survive in this increasingly fragmented era of digital media."

So what's the tablet of choice for the man who prophesied their use? Fidler's had an Apple iPad since April 2010, and he's currently using an iPad 2.

"In my view the Apple has the best media tablet and will continue to dominate the market for at least the next five years," he says.

Fidler believes that tablets will be widely adopted for education and business within the next 10 years. "They are likely to take many forms, but I believe the letter-size tablets will be the most popular as a digital alternative to paper," he says.

So what comes next?

Says Fidler, "I don't have any idea what will come after tablets."

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