The Paper(less) Chase

User preferences should drive workflow development.

The number of printers shipped last year actually fell. It wasnt a huge decline—a little less than 2 percent—but I hope it says something about future reduction of paper in the workplace.

The Association for Computing Machinery reminded me of the pursuit of the paperless lifestyle with its choice last week of Hewlett-Packard Labs Senior Fellow Alan Kay as the winner of its Turing Award for 2003. About 35 years ago, Kay envisioned what he called the Dynabook—a device similar to a Tablet PC but with better programming tools and with aids that even grade-school children could use to collaborate and learn.

Three decades after Kay first imagined replacing books with Dynabooks, U.S. businesses were still spending approximately $1 billion a year designing and printing paper forms, then spending about 30 times that amount on filing, storing and retrieving them. They spent more than twice as much again on maintaining, updating and distributing the documents.

Those figures come from an IDC study, referenced in 2001 by the authors of the MIT Press book "The Myth of the Paperless Office," and added up to approximately $1,000 per U.S. worker per year. Single-digit percentage declines in printer shipments dont suggest that todays numbers are lower by much, if at all.

If workers could get their jobs done without all that dead-tree debris being painstakingly produced, lovingly stored and laboriously moved around, it would pay for much of the cost of our entire IT apparatus—even if the productivity of the workers who use those documents content merely stayed the same. (And we can hope for more.)

One might think that a prize so valuable would have been pursued with vigor and that by now would have been won.

After all, people have been talking about a paperless office for almost 60 years. It was 1945 when MIT professor and presidential adviser Vannevar Bush envisioned a microfilm-based device, which he dubbed the "memex," for capturing and cross-referencing information. Bush accurately foresaw a huge reduction of storage and transmission costs, even if he wrongly forecast analog optics rather than digital electronics as the means: "The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent," he predicted in his widely cited article "As We May Think," which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

And yet we still drown in paper. Last years overall decline in printer volume was cushioned by an increase in sales of multifunction devices—printer/ scanner/copiers and the like—which suggests our preference for hard copy remains alive and well. Were taking advantage of plummeting costs of high-quality color-printing hardware to fulfill that desire on our desktops and in our homes as never before.

Despite years of effort to make my life as paperless as possible, I know Im an example of just this behavior. When I sit at a conference table, I want my talking points on a few unobtrusive sheets of paper, rather than having to look over the screen of my laptop. When Im running an outdoor event, Id rather have the schedule on a sheet of paper than have to squint in the sunlight to see my PDA. A small, fast, inexpensive Canon i850 sits at my right elbow and gives me what I want.

This attitude is, Im sure, partly generational. In photos Ive taken recently at MIT research meetings, almost every undergraduate student has a laptop open for taking notes and checking references. Theyre used to it.

We cant assume, however, that paper will fade away. We have to look at the reasons people still prefer it: ease of identifying a document at a glance, ease of adding annotations, ease of making side-by-side comparisons or of interleaving material from multiple sources.

Lightweight hardware and ubiquitous wireless connectivity reduce the burdens and increase the benefits of working with virtual rather than physical documents. Its now the challenge for interface designers, document toolmakers and corporate workflow architects to take us the rest of the way.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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