With the advent of personal computers we were promised paperless offices. No need to print anything out or jot things down — we have monitors for displaying information and many gadgets and devices for recording things in or out of our home/office. The internet also allows us to store data in the cloud. Digital information is harder to lose, misplace or damage. It can be accessed wherever you are. Yet we still write notes on paper and print out articles to read.
The question is… why?
The problem lies not in the digital media itself — how it’s processed or stored, or any other of its qualities. The problem lies in how we consume it and interact with it. The problem is the interface. Paper is just much more usable than a computer monitor. You can grab a piece of paper in about two seconds and start writing whatever you want. You can draw any diagrams, shapes, charts, pictures — there is little restriction. Paper is also easy to hold and look at — it’s mobile, light and doesn’t tire your eyes like that bright LCD.
On contrast, computer monitors are heavy, fixed and glare a bright light in your eyes that can easily tire. Input methods are limited. Typing on the keyboard is easy, but if you want to draw pictures — well… you could grab a graphics tablet, but that’s not as simple as just sketching things on paper. Sure, there are tablet laptops out there with touch screens you can draw on, but they’re not very accurate either and are definitely bulkier than paper. To save your notes you need to work with the file system. A piece of paper you can just fold and put in your pocket or file in a drawer (although the organization/retrieval is usually simpler on a computer).
Amazon has started the real transition from paper to digital a year ago when they released their Kindle reader. Yes, other eBook readers have existed previously, but they never really got much attention. Amazon offered not only a reader, but a library of books and an easy way to get them. I believe the Kindle is the first real step towards making a device that will simplify the consumption of digital information and make it as usable, if not more, than paper.
The challenge Amazon faces is to detach the old ‘eBook’ association, and sell the device as a real digital book. eBook readers were clunky old devices that didn’t compare well in the usability department to books. What the world needs aren’t ‘eBook’ readers — but ‘book’ readers. Thin, light devices that instantly turn on and display all your books or documents on a high resolution screen. The real feat to accomplish here is to replace paper as the preferred medium for consumption of information.
That’s consumption however — input is another story. I think touch screens are essential in devices like these. Flicking pages shouldn’t be done using buttons — you should literally be able to swipe your fingers over the screen and have the pages turn. Of course, now that the information sits in a digital format, you don’t actually need pages anyway.
Sketching things is still difficult with current technologies. It’s much easier to do a quick sketch on a piece of paper or draw a diagram on a whiteboard than to try to do the the same on your computer. There no way to just pick up a pen and draw on the screen. Well… in some cases there is, but I’ve not seen touch screen technology yet that’s as accurate or simple as a pen on paper.
I think now is the time for a really good touch screen tablet. Something you can use to read all of your books, view all your documents and browse all your photos. Something light and thin that’s not attached to your desk that you can take anywhere with you like a small book. Something with a usable interface that lets you touch the screen to navigate your information. And finally, something which lets you easily input data and draw accurately on the screen.
We’re not that far off actually. Products like the Kindle and the iPhone are getting us very close to that reality. A large, thin iPhone-like tablet, with a display that’s easy on your eyes (similar to Kindle) would in my opinion be a device that would replace the need for paper, and I’m really looking forward to seeing this one day; hopefully soon.
If you look back in history, ancient civilizations used to carve letters on stone and clay. This seems very antiquated today. But look at where we really are. We’re burning letters on thin sheets of processed wood. Books really are just thick chunks of wood. Whole libraries are needed to house them. That doesn’t seem like much of an advancement to me.
The real change will happen when the library turns into a server room, and access to all of its books will be available on a light and usable touch tablet. That day will be the beginning of the end for paper.
What do you think? I’d love to read your thoughts on readers like Kindle and what you think their future holds for us. Do you think we need paper?