Before some of today's dotcom millionaires were born, Roger Fidler was walking around with a wooden mockup of a flat pad that would replace print with an electronic display. Being a newspaper guy -- he worked for the Knight-Ridder chain -- he envisioned it as a way to read newspapers, without paper or ink. It look pretty much like this:
This is a Plastic Logic e-reader. We've had e-readers and flat-pad computers for years, and until recently, they didn't work very well. The e-readers were too small, too slow, and too hard to load with reading material. The flat-pad computers were horribly expensive and failed as they tried to cram Microsoft's desktop computing model into an inappropriate form.
Amazon fixed the content problem when it launched the Kindle in late 2007. It's Linux-powered, equipped with an EVDO wireless modem that used Sprint's network to download e-books directly from Amazon's online store. A new, slightly upgraded version was released a week or two ago. Wisely, Amazon didn't try to cram general-purpose computing into it. It's optimized for static reading material, low current draw, light weight and bright light (you can read it outdoors).
Fortune magazine -- if you can call it a magazine these days -- reported Friday (on the Web, of course) that Hearst Corp. plans to launch its own e-reader "that it hopes can do for periodicals what Amazon's Kindle is doing for books."
Is this all about implementing Roger Fidler's original vision? In a way, yes, but not exactly.
Unquestionably this hits the target as a Fidler pad. In fact, with the larger form factor, it just might be a bullseye.
But what goes on it? Not necessarily newspapers.
The Fortune report immediately set off a round of snark from lazy bloggers who seem to be ignorant of what Hearst actually is, and also ignorant of Hearst's longstanding investment in E Ink, the underlying display technology that powers the Kindle, the Sony E-Reader, the iRex Iliad, and other e-readers.
This is a move into a much broader marketplace that includes many players who are becoming leery of Amazon's power as a broker, taking huge percentages of sales of material consumed on the Kindle. Amazon is positioning itself both as the new bookstore and the new book publisher, dealing directly with authors.
Whether newspapers have a future on such devices won't be determined by technology or paid-content charging systems.
The traditional newspaper -- an omnibus collection of often unrelated news, information and advertising, bundled up into a monolithic product -- is being torn apart by market forces that no e-reader will change. But news in some form will be there. It is, after all, everywhere else.