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December 6, 2011


Tablets Finally Making Paperless Office Possible

By Larry Walsh

Fortune published a profile of Microsoft founder Bill Gates about a decade ago that included a photo of his pristinely clean office. His desk had three monitors, a keyboard, a mouse and not a scrap of paper. He was the proverbial pioneer of the paperless office.

Dreams of the paperless office have been around for decades. Think back to the original Star Trek series in the 1960s – Captain Kirk used what looked like a tablet for signing orders and the crew carried around what could be described as portable flash drives for conveying information on thin clients. There wasn’t a bit of paper on the entire U.S.S. Enterprise.

Yet, despite our visions and dreams, the paperless office has been largely unattainable. Progress has been made as the rows of filing cabinets have been replaced by hard drives and data centers. However, , printer, paper and ink remain the mainstay of revenues and profits for many IT companies specializing in printing and copying. The proliferation of paper documents actually went up as desktop and network printer costs came down.

The day may soon come, though, when tablets finally overtake paper as the primary means of sharing information and storing information. Enabling that transition is cloud-based file synchronization services.

Services such as Box, Dropbox, SugarSync and MobileMe are changing the way users are engaging PCs and mobile devices. These services provide more than cloud-based file storage. They enable the synchronization of data between devices and the conveyance of files to multiple users. They make possible the seamless access to a single file from virtually any Web-enabled device – desktop, laptop, tablets and smartphones.

Prior to these services, users faced the choice of moving files with flash drives and through servers. This created multiple copies that chewed up storage capacity and version-control issues. The same problem existed with email, as copies of a document sent to 10 users would create 10 copies.

With these services, users are no longer tied to a single device for their computing and document needs. They can even extend access to their cloud files to peers, making for easy collaboration.

Tablets are already outpacing PCs sales and are changing the way people consume documents and conventional printed material. The entire model of the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet is compelling subscription sales to digital versions of magazines and newspapers. The form-factor makes reading and sharing documents as easy as taking pen to paper.

An interesting consequence in the rise of tablets is the drag effect they’re having on desktop PCs. For more than a decade, the IT industry has watched demand for desktops slide as notebooks became more powerful and gained longer battery life. Desktops nearly had their death knell rung by netbooks, the lightweith, underpowered notebook alternatives that had the benefit of longer battery life. Tablets combined with file synchronization are making desktops practical again for users who want more power at their home base.

Paper probably won’t be eliminated by any digital device or cloud service, but the written word in the classical sense could become increasingly scarce as the combination of these devices and services take root in enterprise settings.

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