Did Roger Fidler ‘invent’ the iPad in 1994 at a Knight-Ridder lab?

by David Needle

March 9 2012

There were many other tablets before the iPad, but a prototype developed by newspaper publisher Knight Ridder back in 1994 bears an eerie resemblance to Apple's hit device.
There were many other tablets before the iPad, but a prototype developed by newspaper publisher Knight Ridder back in 1994 bears an eerie resemblance to Apple's hit device.

A YouTube video of a newspaper lab’s experimental mobile reading device that bears an erie similarity to Apple’s iPad has gone viral. Shown above, Apple's new iPad.

There isn’t any doubt Apple knew what not to do when it set out to create the iPad. Back in 2001 Microsoft brought out the first Tablet PC, a kind of recasting of a Windows computer into a more portable tablet form. But those Tablet PCs, heavy and expensive, only attained niche status in areas like field delivery services and hospitals over the past decade.

A more forward looking vision of tablet computing predates Microsoft’s effort by almost a decade. The 1994 video by the Knight-RIdder newspaper chain's Information Design Lab shows a black-framed, rectangular tablet that looks very much like today’s iPad. 

Samsung is using the video as evidence to defend itself against charges of patent infringement brought by Apple. 

“I never would have anticipated this would become such a big issue all these years later,” Roger Fidler, told the Washington Post in an in-depth story on development of the tablet. Fidler was director of the Knight-Ridder lab. “All of this has certainly surprised me.”

One noticeable difference from the iPad is that the tablet relied on a stylus for input, just as Microsoft-powered Tablet PCs would almost a decade later. 

The video, entitled, “The Tablet Newspaper: A Vision for the Future,” was actually uploaded to Google Video back in May, 2007, three years before the first iPad came out, and later made its way to YouTube. The Washington Post article also notes that Apple and Knight-Ridder shared ideas when Apple developed the ill-fated Newton tablet in the 1990s, before Steve Jobs return to the company he cofounded. 

“It may be difficult to conceptualize digital paper, but we believe that’s what’s going to happen,” said Fidler in the video.

In what can only be viewed historically as unfounded optimism, the video’s narrator says that the electronic tablet device is under development at consumer electronics companies around the world. 

“Tablets are a whole new class of computer. They’ll weigh under two pounds, they’ll be totally portable with clarity of screen display comparable to ink on paper,” she says, “able to blend text, video, audio and graphics together and be part of our daily lives around the turn of the century.

“We may still use computers to create information , but we’ll use the tablet to interact with information: reading, watching, listening.” 

Technology hits and misses

There are few areas in the video where Fidler’s vision even exceeds today’s tablets, while in others it’s been more than realized. For example, he didn’t anticipate the touchscreen interface or widely available broadband connectivity. He imagines kiosks where you could load up the latest newspaper onto a portable storage media (think today’s USB jump drives). Ironically, unlike other tablets, the iPad has no USB port. 

The video does show video being played within a newspaper and there’s even a little skit showing a couple sharing a tablet at a restaurant to catch up on the latest news. Fidler also talks about more interactive, personalized ads that will be more relevant to consumers. The mock tablet is also shown playing a video of a baseball game available at the tap of a pen and the ability to tap and watch any part in slow motion. 

“We believe we’ll play a role in changing history,” Fidler says in the video. “Many people believe newspapers are dinosaurs, road kill on the information highway. We believe exactly the opposite, that newspapers can evolve that blend the old familiar aspects with new technologies that are  emerging.” 

Knight-Ridder later shut down the lab long before Fidler was able to see his vision realized, though the industry eventually caught up. 

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  • David Needle
    2 years 8 months ago
    Thanks Ian, good to point that out. I actually wrote a note when I sent a link of my article to some tech journalist friends that yes, I know about Alan Kay and also the later Knowledge Navigator video that Apple produced under John Sculley that showed off many of the same concepts. The Tablet Newspaper video that Knight-Ridder produced is a lot closer to the iPad than either of those, but of course, couldn't have been produced without the visionary work of Kay that predated even the most basic portable computer.
  • driwatson
    2 years 8 months ago

    Clearly Fidler had the functionality of his device spot on, just like Safari and magazine apps on the iPad, but as many others have said he didn't (couldn't) build them back then. The real inventor of the tablet is Alan Kay, with his Dynabook, in 1972 from Xerox PARC http://goo.gl/XETXc

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