Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The technology's here, why can't we have it?

I just finished reading an article by Peter Coffee entitiled "The paper(less) chase" in the April 26 issue of eWeek. It's essentially a cry for the implementation of an idea at least 35 years old; the paperless office. In a response e-mail to Mr. Coffee, I pointed out that my finding the article is actually a testament to the paper medium itself, considering how old the article is.

You see, between my keyboard and my monitor is a space that's right-sized for holding paper (okay, a lot of it) with subjects ranging far and wide. Normally it's a staging area for work to be done, with meeting notes and "to do" lists piling up faster than I can work on them and send them off to recycling. Occasionally a magazine will show up there, and I can page through it while waiting for something, or when I'm just tired of doing what I should be doing instead. I can read articles that catch my eye, and in general, the whole situation doesn't interrupt my workflow at all. Indeed, it takes only a moment to re-focus on what I was doing on the screen, making my few moments of entertainment completely unintrusive.

Because of the convenient nature of the paper medium, it may be years before magazines, particularly IT trade journals, go out of print in favor of a soft method of delivery. Still, the reasons for printing reams and reams of project kickoff documents, meeting agendas that no one reads, or draft versions of documents that are only going to get a few scribbles before they're printed again are thinner than the paper itself.

As Mr. Coffee points out, what's needed is an infrastructure that will support working with documents in all the ways we need to without printing them out. For me, among other things, this would mean a PDA that'squite a bit larger than the ones currently on the market. I'm thinking of something the size of a steno pad rather than the pack-of-cigarettes size that seems to be the norm. It needs to have high contrast and high resolution, but relatively a low processor speed is all that's required, as the client software itself shouldn't be doing much. Wireless connectivity would be a must, but other ports could be left out beyond what's necessary for a desktop cradle. A Compact Flash (CF) slot would be all the local memory expansion it needed. The real cue is to make it thin; as thin as the Palm V, which was a wonder of design engineering. It may not be small enough to fit in a pocket, but it doesn't have to feel like a brick, either. My point is that we have all the hardware technology we need, we just need to choose to package it this way.

The software, of course, is where the real bugaboo is. A Web browser could easily handle a lot of document display, if only document authors would write in a tool that was appropriate. Markup could be done in a whiteboarding application, launched with a tap on the right button in an on-screen toolbar. But the real trick is to integrate everything into a nice, easy to use, single environment, where the list of invitees to the meeting can be checked off for those attending, then those peoples' web pads (identified by them being logged in) can be sent notices to launch the whiteboarding application with Document X loaded. The meeting minutes template would, at the end of the meeting, show up in the chairperson's Drafts folder, preloaded with all the known information from the meeting (attendee list, documents covered, time and location, etc.). It's this sort of integration that drives productivity.

Price is the other big issue. $600 per unit won't drive the adoption of this sort of technology on an enterprise scale, but $200 per unit might. The infrastucture and deployment costs should be as inexpensive as possible, relying on standards-based technologies like 802.11x and USB (for the cradle). The software client license should be part of the cost of the client unit, and it should leverage whatver identity management and file sharing system an enterprise already has in place (Active Directory, eDirectory, Windows file service, Netware, etc, etc). In short, make it cheap and easy, with final implementation costs being as little as possible beyond the per unit cost plus training and implementation labor. Huge licensing fees for infrastructure will scare off all but the most wasteful customers.

Technology companies have a real opportunity here to leverage existing components in a new and useful way. With known development costs and a carefully laid marketing plan, an unfilled market niche can be captured with very little risk. So, when are we going to see any of this? "Real soon now," I'm sure.

I, for one, am tired of waiting.

--
If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

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