Is the Fidler pad finally becoming real?

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.


Somebody should write a book, or a blog, about the history of new media. That's a big rectangle to tuck under one's arm and carry around all day. I'll be more impressed when there's one that folds. Not a roll-up, bendy one, but one that folds. Yet, these e-readers seem to be developing one big advantage that web, laptop and smartphone designers should keep an eye on: Reading comfort. Our current screens, even the best ones, aren't real big on reading comfort. The same goes for web page design. Some of us no longer assume that news comes in the shape of a page. The latest e-reader doesn't do much for us. But if we find that our neighbors are getting Kindles and loving them, it might be because of the comfort of reading.

I worked with Roger Fidler on the eMprint project at the Missouri School of Journalism. I do think that e-readers are going to do nothing but gain market share as time goes on -- although reading may never be as popular as listening to music, I do think there's an iPod analogy with e-readers. What's going to be interesting to see is whether the market will coalesce around the Kindle model, which includes wireless capability but sacrifices battery life, or something more like the Sony or Plastic Logic readers, which don't have wireless but have longer life. I've been reading books on my iPhone with Stanza -- although it's not perfect software, it does offer a large range of titles and the ability to customize text size, page-turning, etc. I think you're right that newspapers aren't necessarily what goes on a reader -- at least partly because the readers are still limited in displaying photos and graphics. But news certainly does.

I don’t know, Steve. Some thoughts: 1) I fear this device, even if it’s a great one, will be the Sony Walkman MP3 player to the Apple’s iPod. With such hefty pricetags on the Kindle and I’m sure this new one, will people really want to get ANOTHER e-reader, or this instead of the Kindle.. just to read newspapers? Amazon is clearly setting itself up to be the iPod/iPhone with iTunes distribution for.. books and periodicals. 2) Pointing out that this has an advantage because of its hefty screen size seems to miss the point. I thought we learned 5+ years ago that with information saturation, we needed to write content tighter and in a format that busy people can consume quickly. This device doesn’t put my kids to bed faster, so the time I don’t have now won’t mysteriously come back to me, to be spent luxuriously reading the paper in front of the fire, tobacco pipe in hand. Given all of that, even the increased screen size is a bit of a myth, especially from a readability standpoint – the article admitted that most of that was to allow for ads to appear. 3) The distribution model, which hinted at essentially reselling these to newspaper companies, is crazy. Do you see any other companies buying these in bulk, producing the marketing and sales network, not to mention technological changes to design content that goes into these devices – when we already failed so badly designing content for mobile, and took so long to “get it right” for HTML? “What Hearst and its partners plan to do is sell the e-readers to publishers and to take a cut of the revenue derived from selling magazines and newspapers on these devices. The company will, however, leave it to the publishers to develop their own branding and payment models. "That's something you will never see Amazon do," someone familiar with the Hearst project said. "They aren't going to give up control of the devices." Seriously, that’s the solution? Where’s the newspaper consortium to build a standardized framework to sell information, with one price? It doesn’t exist, and even the Yahoo consortium, with key newspaper companies missing, doesn’t have the mass. 4) Last, I just don’t think newspaper companies have the ability to soak up losses while they wait for something like this to take on. How long to produce the device? How long until newspapers can sell the devices, produce content for them, etc.? What will Kindle look like then..? Can newspapers ignore producing better and better content for Kindle due to its much more established adoption?

but I think Ed is missing the point. Unless I completely missed something in the Hearst announcement, I didn't see an exclusivity to newspapers in their reader proposal. (If there was one, it would be stupid.) No one's going to buy a reader for a single newspaper of only for newspapers. The long-term goal is for any printed content to be displayable on the reader.

I think the reason for much of the confusion is that Hearst has not actually announced anything. There's a lot of speculation based on Fortune's reporting, which may or may not reflect the actual product and strategy. The facts we do know are that Hearst has long been a backer of E Ink and that Hearst is a lot more than a newspaper company.

I share Brian's concern about size.

And I continue to believe that the real market for E Ink devices is educational publishing, especially college textbooks, where incumbent publishers should be terrified right now.