Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The New Gutenberg?

5.1.00

Jerome Rubin: envisioning the future of information and the delivery of the printed word for three decades.

Jerome Rubin: envisioning the future of information and the delivery of the printed word for three decades.

Stu Rosner

If Jerome Rubin '44, G '46, LL.B '49, has his way, the morning newspaper of the future will look a lot like it does now--except that we won't toss it in the recycling bin at the end of the day.

"On your breakfast table, you'll have one broadsheet, the size of the New York Times," muses the longtime pioneer in electronic publishing and chairman of the Cambridge-based E Ink Corporation. "It would look like an ordinary sheet of paper. You'll turn a little switch at one corner of it as you begin to pour your orange juice and, within a second or two, the front page of the Times--or the Harvard Crimson or whatever you want--will pop up. They are all delivered wireless."

If Rubin's vision of movable ink on permanent paper sounds like science fiction, his dreaming has practical foundations. He has already revolutionized the technology behind what we read; now he has his sights on how we read. He created and brought to commercial success Lexis, the computer-assisted legal-research service launched in 1973, and Nexis, the on-line news-research service launched in 1979. Combined, these services constitute the largest on-line text-information service existing today. The introduction of Lexis (and later, Nexis) was, Harvard Law professor Arthur Miller once told American Lawyer, "an in- trepid move that contributed substantially to the ways in which legal analysis and the practice of law have changed."

Rubin didn't set out to be the new Gutenberg. A consulting team at Mead Corporation in Dayton was attempting to transform the company's fledgling database of Ohio state law into a national service that would enable lawyers to type queries into a computer and receive a comprehensive listing of all relevant case law; Rubin was hired to provide the perspective of a practicing corporate lawyer. But his vision and practical sense soon made him president of the new Mead Data Central Inc., with the task of launching its interactive free-text service of 2 billion characters--a database system of a scope and capability never built before.

With his Harvard undergraduate and graduate physics training, Rubin understood the technical limitations of mass-data storage using 1970s computer technology. But his longstanding faith in the practicality of the system--and his ability to negotiate the social complications of getting lawyers to use it--were his greatest contributions. Even when members of his own team doubted the project's viability, Rubin believed in the system because it made lawyers' jobs easier. "Lawyers were very practical about it," he says. "If it worked, they were happy to use it. I remember that when we demonstrated Lexis to a subset of the faculty at the Harvard Law School, Austin Scott brushed me aside and said, 'It is so damn simple, you don't have to show me how to use it.' He immediately went over and used it very effectively." Within four years of its launch, the system was profitable. Two years later, Rubin added the Nexis news and information systems.

He left Lexis-Nexis in 1980 to run the Times Mirror Company's professional information and publishing group; in 1992 he joined MIT's Media Lab as chairman of its "News in the Future" project. Even in the late 1980s, when technological dreamers were pondering what kinds of information could be tailored through a personal computer, Rubin was already trying to think beyond the glass monitors and keyboards that made access to information cumbersome. In 1987 he told the New York Times Magazine that he was dubious of projects focused solely on organizing--personalizing--text in new ways. "I still find books and newspapers to be more congenial than cathode ray tubes, or any other kind of electronic display," he asserted. "People prefer paper for lots of reasons--it's portable, it's flexible."

Through contacts he made at the Media Lab, he's since focused, literally, on how we read text, not just what we read. Once again, he sees possibility in a seemingly "far-out technology" to create electronic paper, and is applying his practical experience in the publishing world to making it commercially viable.

"One of the great potentials of electronic paper is that it will give you all the advantages of an electronic book--the ability to manipulate the data--without having the discomfort of reading off a glass screen," Rubin says. "I don't think it's just a matter of being used to paper--paper is simply a better medium: you have higher contrast, better resolution; you're not tied to something rigid in front of you. You can fold the pages, move them, pick them up, and put them down."

He's looking first at an electronic paper book, which he says will be commercially available in about three years. The "cultural" problems e-ink will need to overcome, he says, are similar to those that faced Lexis. "I think people are so used to receiving information electronically today that it should be fairly easy to get them to use it. I think it is going to boil down largely to two issues: cost and convenience. The convenience is easy--it's not a question of changing habits. And the cost is something that we want to make sure we can deal with."

In fact, he says, the greatest hurdle e-ink faces isn't with readers. "Publishers are fairly conservative and slow to act," he explains. "There's a kind of 'bury-your-head-in-the-sand' quality to lots of them. That's why someone who was not a publisher started Lexis, and that's why a lot of what's happening today is being done by people who are not publishers."

Not a publisher, not a physicist or computer scientist, Rubin relishes his ability to think outside the box. "I guess, subconsciously, I do look for that," he says. "I would not be happy running a shoe company." He prefers instead to reinvent aspects of our lives that we take for granted.