Thursday, 23 April 2015

Paperless office

I has one, for the most part.  I genuinely haven’t printed anything for years (although I have twice in the last five years or so  asked someone to print something for me).  Of course, I don’t have any employees, which makes things a lot easier.  Still, I’m confident in saying that every single piece of paper I have was generated by someone else and I keep this to a minimum with electronic billing and other correspondence where possible.

I make handwritten notes every day, but they are all on my phone or tablet.  Both are Galaxy Notes and the things I write are shared between the devices and available wherever else I want them.  Before tablets were widely available, I had a Tablet PC.  These were laptops with pens and they were actually pretty good.  I’m not sure why they didn’t take off like later tablets did.  I’m not a particular fan of Microsoft Office software, but OneNote was a brilliant way to take notes with a pen.  There’s nothing remotely like it available for tablets.

I have lots and lots of books but I haven’t considered buying a new one on paper since I got my first Kindle.  The ebook readers I had before the Kindle were fine, but the books weren’t available. These days, there’d have to be a very compelling reason indeed for me to buy a book on paper.

So I live the vast majority of my life without reading or writing on dead trees, but I still manage to find things to moan about.  They are all the more annoying because there are no real technical barriers to any of the things I want.  Here they are:

  1. My tablet PC had a very simple handwritten note-taking app that did one thing no other software I’ve seen does.  It had an infinite page.  When you came close to filling up the screen with handwriting, it scrolled up what you’d written and created new blank space underneath.  No creating new pages and then flicking between them, it was on one continuous page.  You could scroll through it with a gesture.  I want software for my Note that does the same thing.
  2. There were several great things about using OneNote with a pen on a tablet PC. First, you could organise your notes by section and by page.  A simple idea but done very well in OneNote and overcomplicated – where it exists at all – in other note-taking software.  Second, you could drag content in from virtually anywhere and annotate it. Third, you could easily designates bits of handwriting (and text and other content) as belonging to a category, then have a page that summarised all the bits marked as belonging to that category.  It was a great way to make lists.  For example, if you were taking notes in a meeting and some evil person gave you something to do, you could mark the note you made about it as belonging to your todo list and then later look at all the items on that list in one place.  I really miss being able to do that.
  3. I used a Livescribe pen for a while,  With Livescribe, you have special notebooks printed with a very subtle pattern and a special pen with a camera in it.  When you write in the notebook, the pen remembers what you wrote so you can transfer it to a PC and do handwriting recognition if you want.  That’s pretty nice but redundant now I have a tablet and phone that do this without the need for special notebooks. But the Livescribe pen also has a mic and it remembers the audio it records and what you were writing at the time.  So if you’re looking back through notes you made in a meeting and don’t understand what you wrote, you can just tap the note with the pen and it’ll play back the audio.  If my tablet could do that and had the ability to mark bits of handwriting as belonging to a category (as in point 2) I’d be very happy indeed,
  4. My Kindle is great for reading novels, slightly less so for reading text books and even less so for reading sundry documents such as academic papers.  PDFs don’t render very well unless they are single column in a fairly small font and without diagrams.  Hardly any of the documents I have to read are even slightly like that so I usually have to read them on my tablet when I’m travelling.  That seems like the sort of thing that could be fixed fairly easily.
  5. The DRM on my Kindle books really bothers me for the usual reasons.
  6. I need various cloud accounts to keep my various bits of content synched.  I want to be able to choose a provider or providers, not have ones forced on me by the software I happen to use.  If that means I end up paying for previously free software, that’s fine by me.

See? I’m not asking for much.  The fact that I’m probably the only person in the world who likes to work this way shouldn’t stop companies writing hideously expensive (to develop) software that does all that and selling it to me for next to nothing, surely?

The BBC site has a piece about paperless offices.  I think it’s asking the wrong question.  I don’t want to replace paper, I want technology that lets me work however I want.  That technology might even be – as with Livescribe – smarter paper.  I think the reason OneNote works so well is that it doesn’t push the filing cabinet metaphor too hard.  Each page just happens to be doubly-indexed with additional symbolic links where you want them.

The article points out that our relationship with paper is different to our relationship with other technologies. I think that’s certainly true but I tend to think of the difference in terms of security and privacy. Handwriting on a piece of paper is fundamentally different in a variety of ways to electronic handwriting in terms of how likely it is to be stolen, observed, intercepted, copied etc. with each having different advantages and disadvantages.  At the most basic level, if I write something on a piece of paper, it’s usually because I want other people to see it.  If I write it on my phone or tablet, it’s usually a note to myself.  There are bound to be loads of psychologists, social scientists and privacy/security people studying this, I should look it up.  It would be interesting to find out if there’s demand for an electronic page that behaves as much like a piece of paper as possible.

EDIT: OneNote is available for phones and tablets, but (at least the last time I looked at it) it doesn’t have anything like the functionality of OneNote on a Tablet PC all those years ago.

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