Sunday, April 11, 2010

Is paper dead?

The Star Trek tricorder.  I always wanted one.  And with each progressive series and movie in that famous entertainment franchise, the devices became sleeker and seemed to be able to do more and more.  By "The Next Generation", Captain Picard carried a thin slate that seemed to replace any hint of paper anywhere.  Information streamed to it.  He could communicate with it.  It was just like... well, like an Apple iPad.

And so now, with the advent of real life tricorders, will all of us, like the crew of the Enterprise, forego all paper for such a thin slate?  My sense is: not quite yet.  But the reason is not necessarily what you think.

In terms of pure functionality, I believe the Apple iPad gets us 90% of the way to a paperless society.  90% of anything that any of us can do on a piece of paper, we can do better on an iPad, because of course an iPad can do much, much more.  And as I mentioned recently (see here), there are new tools emerging which seriously challenge the reign of paper, which originated back in Egypt with papyrus (about 2400 BC).  But why not 100% of the way there?  Well, there are times when you need paper to write on in places where batteries can't be recharged or weather conditions (tropical rain forests, icy climes) won't be kind to electronic devices.  But in the 90% scenario, an iPad will work just fine.

So, what's the real barrier then?  I suggest it's cultural and that we're only roughly 30% of the way there. Folks, myself included, like to take notes on pda type devices and laptops.  We like to look up information electronically and we prefer reading a blog or news coming from an RSS feed rather than having to pick up a last century style newspaper (shudder).  But, we always look suspicious when doing so.  As though we're not paying attention because we're playing an online version of Battleship (B4... you sank my destroyer!) or checking emails or posting on Facebook or whatever.  Recently, I was in a large group meeting and when someone cited a figure in a presentation that I suspected was incorrect, I popped open my Macbook and looked up the information.  The top lifted, I called up a file, I checked it out and then popped the top back down.  20 seconds tops.  But I received feedback later that I appeared as though I was disinterested in the actual discussion at hand.  Au contraire.

The Apple iPad is the first tricorder-like device that stands a chance at changing this cultural dynamic.  It will take early adopters and then a normalization phenomenon (as happened with GPS devices, cellphones, fax machines, telephones, automobiles, papyrus...) for people get used to the idea that those toting a device are, in fact, present and available.  When this happens (over the next five years), then paper's days will surely be numbered.

Now I have to get back to the meeting I'm in.

A8.  Hit.

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