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Issue of October 2006 

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Whatever happened to the paperless office?

In the first wave of computerisation we were assured that paper, that nasty thing invented by the Chinese in a millennium long gone by, would no longer clutter up office shelves. That didn’t happen. An interesting phrase was coined at that time, to wit, the Paperless Office. The noise around this concept died down awhile only to be resurrected with the dawn of e-mail. Once more the cry rose, no more paper. Once more, it was dead wrong. Printer manufacturers laughed all the way to the bank clutching sacks of doubloons from selling ink by the megaton and acres upon acres of forest cover were pulped to provide a receptacle for that ink. The phrase has now acquired the dreaded status of a cliché. So much so, that while naming the issue that you hold in your hands, we considered using ‘Paperless Office’ in the title for all of two nanoseconds.

While all of the above is true, there’s something noble, if quaint, about the thought of a paper-free world. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that it will never happen. Better men than me have made predictions that no doubt seemed perfectly wise and proper at the time (Bill Gates and his 640 KB should be enough line or the top brass at IBM who believed that five computers would suffice for the world) but turned out to be ludicrous. There are already technologies in widespread use that reduce paper usage. We’ve covered three in this issue—electronic document management, electronic data interchange (EDI) and digital signatures. The first takes existing paper documents and converts them to digital form to be shuttled around an organisation’s networks and used where needed. That said these digitised documents could well end up being printed at the end of the line. Then there’s EDI which converts paper-based processes to all-electronic marvels that don’t even need humans to intercede once things have been set-up to everybody’s satisfaction. Digital signatures help authenticate electronic documents bringing them legally on par with paper documents.

These three technologies while quite powerful aren’t going to do away with paper usage. It’ll take nothing short of an e-paper that can be reused, folded, tucked away and crumpled and thrown away when not needed anymore before paper finally bites the dust, that too, if the e-paper is as inexpensive to produce as paper. This may seem like something from the wilder realms of science fiction but efforts are afoot to create an electronic alternative to paper, thin materials that can display text and images and can be erased and reused. Right now they’re mostly black and white displays but give the technology time, I’m sure they will get it right eventually. After all, there was a time when movies were silent and the stage play reigned. Today the play is still around but it’s more of an elite art form patronised by the well-to-do. Will paper end up like that someday? It could happen.

Prashant L Rao
Head of Editorial Operations

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