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?”
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.”