For tablet computer visionary Roger Fidler, a lot of what-ifs

Roger Fidler, in jeans and a black turtleneck, is watching Steve Jobs, in jeans and a black turtleneck, introduce the iPad.

Fidler is sitting in his stark white office — the late Apple co-founder adored white’s simplicity — and Jobs is strolling on stage in a 2010 video playing on Fidler’s MacBook. “There’s laptops and smartphones now,” Jobs says. “But a question has arisen lately: Is there room for a third category of device in the world, something that’s between a laptop and a smartphone?”

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Fidler smiles through a scruffy gray Jobsian beard. He has known the answer for a long time. In 1994, while running a lab dreaming up the future of newspapers, Fidler starred in his own video demonstrating a prototype he cooked up that was remarkably like the iPad — black, thin, rectangular, with text and video displayed on-screen.

A narrator described technology that at the time sounded like science fiction: “Tablets will be a whole new class of computer. They’ll weigh under two pounds. They’ll be totally portable. They’ll have a clarity of screen display comparable to ink on paper. They’ll be able to blend text, video, audio and graphics together. . . . We may still use computers to create information but will use the tablet to interact with information — reading, watching, listening.”

Nearly two decades later, the video was unearthed online and went viral after Jobs introduced the iPad. Fidler, now in his late 60s and a journalism think-tanker at the University of Missouri, became an overnight blogosphere sensation. “Video Evidence: They Predicted the iPad Way Back in 1994” was one headline. A blogger wrote, “It’s not often (well, ever) that I consider the possibility someone might be from the future, but maybe Roger Fidler was.”

For Fidler and colleagues who knew him back when he dreamed the future, the video’s resurfacing generated exhilarating but sore memories — and lots of thorny questions: What if their lab hadn’t been shut down by shortsighted corporate bean-counting? Is Fidler getting enough credit, or even any credit? Did Apple (ahem) steal the idea?

Or had Fidler’s crew simply planted the concept of this most fantastic innovation into the public mind all those many years ago? This last one, it turns out, is the linchpin question in an epic patent battle between Apple and Samsung, an emergent rival in the tablet market. And of all the wonder and what-ifs, it’s the question that has catapulted Fidler from his peaceful academic life to the center of a global legal war.

Apple is suing Samsung, alleging that the Korean company copied its iPad design. And Samsung is defending itself, in large part, by using Fidler’s video-gone-viral, saying it proves the design was already in the public domain and is thus not patentable. Fidler is bewildered. He cherishes his sleek white iPad, but most unexpectedly he’s quietly siding with the enemy of a dead man he reveres.

“I never would have anticipated this would become such a big issue all these years later,” Fidler said. “All of this has certainly surprised me.”

* * *

Fidler’s odyssey starts in newsrooms, in the days of hot type, rolling presses and afternoon editions.

Several decades ago, he worked for Knight-Ridder, a national newspaper chain, in Detroit, Washington and Miami as a graphics guru and design expert. His colleagues from those days remember a big thinker, a science-fiction addict and a bit of an oddball. Fidler was constantly scribbling designs for a tablet, telling anyone in earshot that newsprint would one day vanish.

Many ignored him, apparently at their peril. Apple — a $500 billion company — has sold more than 55 million iPads since introducing them in 2010, ushering in the post-PC revolution. Apple’s third iteration of the iPad, with a screen displaying 1 million more pixels than a high-definition TV, goes on sale this Friday. Lines will be long.

“It was not quite like Roger had descended from another planet, but he was saying some things that were simply very hard to believe at the time,” said John Woolley, who worked with Fidler at Knight-Ridder. “He had conjured up this idea of a tablet at a time when laptops were revolutionary. He was clearly a futurist. And he didn’t care what anyone believed. He never backed down.”

In 1979, Fidler joined Knight-Ridder’s corporate office to work on new business models. In 1981 — more than a decade before he made his viral video — he published an essay describing the tablet future. “These units could have tactile controls,” he wrote. “When readers wanted to read the whole story, they would simply press the capsule or tease headline and the complete story would instantly appear on the screen.”

Fidler even devised a fake plastic tablet, holding it up at journalism conferences to guffaws. His mock-up was rectangular and thin. “It just seemed so obvious to me that it had to be a touch screen,” Fidler said. “And it had to be portable. It had to fit in an attache case. It had to be comfortable to hold. That was the idea.”

While nursing his tablet ambitions, ­Fidler worked on other projects at Knight-Ridder, including a service to bring interactive content to TVs. In 1992, he persuaded his superiors to let him open a skunk-works lab in Colorado to work on the tablet, and he recruited some of the brightest, most-forward-thinking minds in computer software, hardware and newspapers to join him.

The lab was essentially a tiny office in a glorified parking garage. Their neighbor: Apple. It, too, was thinking about the future of media in its own lab. Knight-Ridder’s lab worked on ideas for providing news to Apple’s ill-fated hand-held Newton device, an early personal digital assistant.

Apple and Knight-Ridder were separated by a wall.

“It was an incredibly exciting place to work,” said Peggy Bair, Fidler’s deputy at the lab. “Roger was this incredible visionary, and everyone who was thinking about the future of media wanted to work there and come see him. We had people sleeping outside the door trying to get jobs.”

Apple and the Knight-Ridder lab were constantly swapping ideas and even visitors. Newspaper executives would visit Apple, then stop by Knight-Ridder. Newspaper executives would visit Knight-Ridder, then stop by Apple.

“They were on the hardware side, and we were thinking about the content side of things,” Bair said. “I felt like we were collaborating, but maybe that was naive.”

Knight-Ridder lawyers visited the lab in 1993 and discussed whether they should patent Fidler’s tablet design. But design patents are difficult to protect. Also, Fidler argued the best way to build tablets was to not stifle development by cornering the market on the idea with patents. The technology industry eventually went the other direction, with companies seizing patents as innovation land grabs.

“Competition was in the best interest of the newspaper industry,” he said. “That would prevent any one company from owning the idea of the tablet.”

So the lawyers took a pass on the patent.

Fidler and his associates pressed on, hoping their work would persuade a manufacturer to partner with them and make the tablet. In 1994, using some trick photography and a tablet made out of plastic, they produced their 13-minute video, a public relations stunt to generate buzz for an interactive newspaper. The video went viral in ways that videos went viral circa 1994: Copies of the tape were mailed to more than 200 media outlets. Fidler appeared on “The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.”

“If I’m interested in that ad,” Fidler says in the video, “and want to know more, it’s simply a matter of touching that ad. And at that point I go through an electronic doorway into the advertiser’s space. And in that space might be a video clip for 15 or 20 seconds, sort of a TV commercial, but I’m in control.”

That feature is available today in just about every magazine or newspaper app.

At the time, the technological hurdles were insurmountable. The screens Fidler needed weren’t available at prices consumers could afford. Internet download speeds were still in the caveman era. Batteries were pathetic. Fidler hoped he could keep working on the project, but Jim Batten, the lab’s champion and chief executive of Knight-Ridder, died in 1995 after battling brain cancer. Tony Ridder, his successor, was intent on saving money and moving the company’s thinking about the future toward the Web, so the lab was shut down.

“Tony was looking at things from a short-term perspective,” Fidler said.

Ridder did not return a phone message seeking comment.

“We were ahead of our time,” said Curt Stevens, an engineer in the Knight-Ridder lab who now works at Disney. “But there’s little doubt in my mind that we were working on something that was akin to the iPad. And we were working on it a long time ago. And we were certainly trying to solve a lot of the same problems. Who knows what would have happened?”

* * *

Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography of Steve Jobs is the closest thing to an official history of product development at Apple, one of the most secretive companies in the world. On Page 492, Isaacson writes: “If you had been paying attention to patent filings, you would have noticed the one numbered D504889 that Apple applied for in March 2004 and was issued fourteen months later. Among the inventors listed were [Steve] Jobs and [Jonathan] Ives. The application carried sketches of a rectangular electronic tablet with rounded edges, which looked just the way the iPad turned out.”

Apple is using this design patent — in legal papers it is known as D889 — to argue in federal court that Samsung copied the iPad with its competing Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet, released in 2011. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company even took the extraordinary step of asking a judge to halt sales of the Galaxy Tab before trial. “The overall appearance of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is strikingly similar to the D889 patent,” Apple lawyers argued in legal briefs, “and shows Samsung’s copying. Every major element of Apple’s patented design is found in the Galaxy Tab 10.1.”

But Samsung’s lawyers countered that Fidler’s video put the design into the public domain in 1994, well before Apple filed its patent. (They mentioned his 1981 essay, too.) Samsung’s lawyers also noted that when Apple filed its patent, the company made no mention of Fidler’s device even though the company, which had its lab next to Fidler’s, knew of it because it had worked with him and his lab. The U.S. District judge in the case, Lucy H. Koh, declined Apple’s request to halt sales of the Galaxy Tab, in part because she found Samsung’s argument about Fidler’s tablet convincing.

“Apple has not established that it is likely to succeed at trial against Samsung’s challenge to the validity of the D’889 patent,”the judge wrote.

The case in California is one of at least 20 lawsuits between the companies — Apple v. Samsung, Samsung v. Apple — on four continents. Several patents are in dispute. Fidler is serving as a paid expert witness for Samsung, not because he thinks its product is better, he says, but because he doesn’t think one company should lock up dominance in tablet development through questionable patents. His philosophy is that of an old-school hacker who wants to push innovation to its limits regardless of the bottom line.

He has filed a long declaration of facts, in which he describes Apple working next door to his lab. He also mentions that Stephens, the former Knight-Ridder engineer now at Disney, worked at Apple after leaving the lab.

“I could and would testify to such facts under oath,” he wrote.

Lawyers for Samsung and Apple did not return several requests for comment.

Stevens, in an interview, said he didn’t work on tablets at Apple. Asked whether the iPad idea essentially fell into Apple’s lap, Stevens said, “Let’s not go down that road. I don’t want to get into that.” An Apple employee from the neighboring lab — Dennis Dube, now a tech entrepreneur in Colorado — said Apple’s lawyers called him three times recently to find out more about what happened at the labs in the ’90s.

“I think they are concerned about their ability to connect all the dots,” Dube said, adding that the conversations never went far because he’s no longer covered under nondisclosure agreements. “They are not going to show any cards to somebody like me. I could possibly help them or harm them depending on what question they ask me.”

And here is where all the hullabaloo gets complicated for Fidler.

“I cannot honestly say whether Steve Jobs took his inspiration for the iPad from my tablet, but it’s hard for me to believe that he wasn’t aware of it, because the videos were circulating everywhere,” ­Fidler said. “I can’t believe they weren’t aware of what I was doing.”

But Fidler, in what amounts to an extraordinary act of taking the high road, said he holds no hard feelings. Really. He points out that he did not initiate the legal war underway. He is not jealous of Apple’s success. He understands that in technology, ideas come and go, they get into the wind, and people iterate on them and bring them to life and make them better. It turns out, in fact, that someone long before Fidler thought of tablets.

In the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, astronauts use tablet computers. Samsung has even mentioned the movie in its legal filings, saying it provides more evidence that the idea was in the public domain. Fidler recalls having seen the movie and though he says he wasn’t consciously thinking of it all those years later, he acknowledges it could have been an influence.

One of the most powerful examples of ideas getting in the wind comes at Apple. In 1979, Jobs visited Xerox PARC to see a new graphical computer interface the company had developed. He was so smitten with the idea that he finagled a deal to use the technology for what eventually became the interface for Apple’s operating system. In recounting the story, Isaacson quoted Jobs, who once said: “Picasso had a saying — ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ — and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

Nevertheless, in a statement Apple said it was not a coincidence that Samsung’s tablet looked like the iPad.

“This kind of blatant copying is wrong, and we need to protect Apple’s intellectual property when companies steal our ideas,” Apple said.

For his part, Fidler said: “It takes a visionary like Steve Jobs to make these products possible. He’s a genius. He was a keen observer of the world around him, and he was definitely influenced by what he saw. I have no resentment of that at all. I’m really delighted that he put the pressure on Apple to make the iPad. I love my iPad.”

His old friend and colleague Peggy Bair can’t help but be both excited and saddened about the iPad’s arrival. “This is what we were hoping for 20 years ago, and here it is. And it’s even more powerful than we thought,” she said. “It’s just so exciting to see Roger’s vision coming to life. But I think he deserves a lot more credit than he has received for the vision of what now exists. People who know the history know that he was a huge part of this idea.”

* * *

Does Fidler have regrets?

He does.

After leaving Knight-Ridder, he signed a five-year noncompete agreement. He eventually wound up teaching at Kent State. The noncompete made it difficult for him to start a company — Knight-Ridder would have rights to a 30 percent stake — but it did not bar him from consulting with companies potentially working on tablets. He made overtures to Apple executives, thinking they were most likely to bring a tablet to life. He never heard back from them.

“Sometimes I wish I had been a bit more proactive in trying to work with a company,” he said. “I don’t know if it was because I didn’t make enough effort or not with Apple, but no opportunity opened up to be able to work with Apple.”

But he insists he has no regrets about not becoming a billionaire.

“What would I want to have after I retired to use for reading?” he said. “I had this vision of at some point being up in the mountains somewhere but still wanting to have access to newspapers and have books and magazines available to me, so somewhat selfishly I kept thinking, what would be the ideal device that I would want to have? To me it was never about the money. I was never doing things with the idea that this was going to make me rich. It never occurred to me, actually.”

Fidler is still working, thinking about the future of media at the University of Missouri’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. On the day the iPad was introduced, Fidler watched Jobs on a big screen with his students. “There’s your tablet,” they said. He was thrilled: The iPad was the device he had dreamed about so long ago. Fidler immediately ordered one.

And he received an e-mail from his old colleague John Woolley that said, “your most whack ball idea from 30 years ago is now a reality.”

 
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