Is the end of the paper trail in sight?

 

Dave Pritchard is something of a fanatic when it comes to avoiding paper and says his approach will gradually become commonplace in business. "I have a notebook PC with me wherever I go," said Pritchard, the director of corporate strategy at Fujitsu Siemens Computers, who regularly scans and downloads his key documents.

"It's got masses of data space and I can get any mail, any notes, any letter, any document, any market analysis, any financial spreadsheet within minutes because it's there." After decades of premature hoopla about the paperless office, some experts say the technology is finally ready to zap the need for reams of paper around the office.

But so far, the explosion of the digital world through the Internet has led to more printing and paper than ever. And at a recent conference in Berlin, experts offered radically different visions of future worlds with and without paper.

Paul Curlander, chairman of computer-printer maker Lexmark, predicted the Internet would help boost, not reduce, home and office consumption of paper worldwide to eight trillion pages by 2010, up from three trillion today. "The paperless office did not develop fundamentally because paper is just the way people like to deal with information," he says.

"What we see very often with users is if they have to read more than a screen, they have to print, because the ability to look at a display for a long period of time is inconvenient." At the same time, digital data, perhaps best symbolised by e-mail, continues to grow. Dataquest, a unit of the research firm Gartner Group, estimates 70 per cent of office documents are now digital, up from 10 per cent a decade ago.

Some businesses are actively embracing the paperless idea. St Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital in Harrison, New York, says it has saved $2.3 million in the past three years by creating a paperless hospital, with electronic records more reliable and faster to access than their old files. Even the United Nations, the source of endless paper reports for decades, has embraced the idea at least of moving toward the paperless office.

Taking the paperless, pro-Internet idea to the extreme is the DotComGuy, a Dallas-based man in his late 20s who has locked himself up in front of a camera and the Internet to prove one can live entirely off and in the online world.

Yet in offices and homes everywhere, scanners often lie idle and printers crank out a plethora of e-mail and other documents from the virtual world. Some entrepreneurs are so confident of the wired world's continued need for paper that they have formed firms aimed at printing documents from the Internet.

For example, California-based NowDocs.com takes electronic documents sent to it by clients, prints them out, and then delivers the hard copy by express delivery. "The paperless society is a myth," said Steve Jacober, president of the US School, Home & Office Products Association. "The computer has actually become an additional consumer of traditional school and office supplies."

According to Lexmark, homes and offices use only 5 per cent of the world's 60 trillion pages of paper a year - the rest comes in books, magazines and other mass publications.

Such dominance by old-style publishers will erode in the coming years, Curlander predicts. "As printers become faster and more sophisticated," he says "traditional printing output will fall as people print up things like newspapers and even books at home."

Even companies betting on the digital world for their future success are wary of letting go of paper altogether. Pierre Schaeffer, a Kodak vice-president overseeing digital imaging, is reluctant to predict a time when families will no longer gather around the photograph album but instead peer at a computer screen to relive past memories.

"When we start to go to, let's say, massive online archiving . . . there is also an issue that you have to put into place a really, really reliable system, like nuclear-proofs, with backups of backups of backups," he said.

Pritchard, the paperless enthusiast at Fujitsu Siemens, foresees the rapid growth of online backup storage facilities that will continuously update backup data copies in case your own computer crashes or is stolen.

Pritchard may still have a boring, old-style filing cabinet for paper in his office, but he disdains the contents inside. "I don't use it. It's full of rubbish. It's full of fliers from companies. It's full of pieces of paper that people have sent me that I never intend to read," he said.