26.8.11

Words that stay.

Man, if I'd posted my thoughts on Apple last week like I originally planned, I would have been on the cutting edge of tech punditry. Ah, well.

A few weeks ago, I read an article explaining why we might not be seeing any new products from Apple. It's a good argument, and mercifully free of the life-without-Steve-Jobs rhetoric that's filled your news for the last few days.

Here's a key idea from that article:

Apparently Apple noticed in 1997 that nearly all the ways that people consumed content sucked. Hard.


It's Lesson #2 of economics: find a niche and fill it. Is there anything that sucks today, something that's been crying out for a solution for so long that we can barely notice it anymore?

My initial response would be printers. They jam, they dry out, they disappear from the network, they jam, they insist on running their own proprietary software, they jam, they require at least a few re-alignments every time you want to print in a different format, and they jam. Also, they're bulky, and since they have to at least be the size of their paper tray, they're never going to take up a smaller footprint. Printers, simply put, are awful.

But building a better printer isn't going to solve the problem. People have been building better printers for decades, and it hasn't helped so far. That's because the problem is one of a slightly larger scope: it's not printers, it's paper itself. People have held up "the paperless office" as an ideal for as long as computers have been around, and it hasn't happened yet.

But it's true: office paper sucks as much as office printers do. Ask anyone who's ever moved - nothing is denser than a box of papers. Three-ring binders break down, desks get buried, filing cabinets overflow with ancient folders that will never be needed -- and that's on top of the problems with printers. And perhaps the worst thing about paper is that it's cheap. If your signature isn't as nice as you'd like, print out another form and re-sign it. If there are eight people at your meeting, print out eight copies of the minutes. If you want to read a .pdf away from your desk, you hit the print button before checking how many pages it is. This is more than just wasteful behaviour; it's behaviour that makes paper so ubiquitous that it becomes harder and harder to imagine its removal from the workplace. And just as importantly, our predisposition to treat paper as a cheap resource means that we continually push our printers more than necessary, and that we notice is more acutely when the overworked printers break down. That's why building a better printer isn't the answer.

So how do we replace it? Why hasn't it caught on in the past? What are the strengths of paper?

One strength of paper is, of course, the same weakness I already mentioned: it's cheap. You can give a paper to someone else without a second thought. The fact that this is a strength is particularly frustrating, since electronic documents are even cheaper -- virtually free. However, they still require time to transfer. You can e-mail attachments, or transfer USB drives, or place files on shared network directories, but it's still not as seamless as it could be.

Another bug that became a feature is that all writing is additive. When notes are made on a printout, it's instantly obvious what's the original document, and what's a side comment. There are ways to record version histories and append notes for a file, but there's still a way to go before electronic edits are as transparent as they are on paper.

But I think the best answer to that is found in "The Dark Crystal". Kira asks Jin at one point what writing is. He replies, "words that stay". Not only does paper have permanence, but it's a homogenous permanence. Tear a page in half, and both halves still function. Some meaning might be lost, but they still serve as proof that the whole page existed at some point. One of the reasons we need paper has nothing to do with the information on it, but simply the proof that the information exists.

In other words, receipts and records. If you buy a vacuum cleaner with cash, you have to prove you bought it if you need warranty repairs. (On a slightly more insidious note, that might be a reason some business will insist paper -- because it's *less* convenient than a modern alternative.) Tax records are another issue - in the event of an audit, proving the existence of your deductible claim isn't yet (to the best of my knowledge) manageable through electronic records.

So, there's the challenge. Find a legally admissible way to safely record the purchase of a vacuum cleaner, paid for in cash. Then, find a way to convince either customers, vendors, or financial institutions that your system should be adopted. It's a big challenge, but I think that a future without people printing out every page of their Powerpoint presentations is one worth fighting for.

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.