by Paul B. Firth July 20, 2010
We have waited so long for the paperless office that today, it is popular not only to pronounce that it remains many years off, but to point out that we are actually using more paper. Like the stock market, it’s exactly when we reach the point of widest doubt that a reversal of fortunes begins.
Although more dollars are going into manipulation of paper documents than ever before in history, we are close to the inflection point. Only now we can envision no longer just a paperless office, but a paperless life. The speed of technology transitions is increasing rapidly. Just a few years after this inflection, paper-based workflows may seem like absurdly inefficient relics. Reference points include Facebook, which went from its first open use in late 2006 to over 100 million users today, and the iPhone, which went from introduction in mid-2007 to 43 million units by the end of 2009.
For the first time in history:
1. We have moved to a single-platform world… the web browser. The browser is the unifying technology that enables delivery of virtually all required information. It has taken about 15 years. The last few times a change of this significance in information-sharing occurred were television (introduced 1929 – adoption 1960s), and radio (introduced 1897 – adoption 1940s). Before that was Gutenberg’s press (1455). The one just prior to that was the invention of paper (ca 3500 BCE).
2. Most people will soon have web browsers in their possession at all times. Reliable sources indicate that over 50% of all web pages will be viewed on portable devices (not PCs) within 5 years…today it is under 2%. Most new television sets, and all gaming systems, include browsers. Bankers and brokers are fully aware of this trend, already offering most services via iPhone, Blackberry, and Android. The fallout of that is just now beginning.
3. We are rapidly becoming spoiled. If I’m suddenly curious how tall Bob Costas is, I can find that out in 5 seconds. But if I am asked for my mother’s social security number, I have to wait until I get home, and then dig though a file cabinet.
4. The next generation of doctors will presume information availability, and it will be provided via the National Healthcare Information Network (NHIN). Most other professions are ahead of the medical community, and are just waiting for wider enablement.
Operational Requirements of the Near Future
Many of the needs implied by a paperless life can be illustrated via your annual personal income tax debacle. I’ll assume that I implemented my paperless reality on January 1st, last year. Note that all of these actions are already possible, just not streamlined.
1. Online Storage – I splurged and purchased 20 GB of online storage from Google for $5 per year. All my documents are maintained and visible, no matter where in the world I happen to be.
2. Receipt Scan – All year long, every time I purchased something I thought might be deductible, I dropped it into (or onto) my scanner, or took a photo with my phone. Through a fabulous user interface, perhaps some OCR and form processing, and the Google API, all of my receipts are organized into meaningful folders, by year and category. In any event, I can easily reorganize these receipts online at any time later.
3. Bank and Credit Card Statements – My bank says they keep my electronic statements for 7 years, but as they are e-mailed, I collect them (rules engine?) and copy them to my Google folder just in case they go out of business.
4. Letter from Sis – She still likes writing letters. Yes…with a pen. She usually has some tax advice. I scan them to my Family folder.
5. Junk Mail – Unbelievable! A coupon I actually wanted! I scan it to my Coupons folder. The checkout lady is nice enough to scan the image off my cell phone at the store. Soon, USPS won’t have to deliver this junk anymore, as most coupons already arrive by Email, or I look them up as I wander the aisles.
6. Expense Reports – Luckily, my company has online entry, so I take pix of my receipts and classify them while I’m in my hotel room. I don’t lose receipts anymore.
7. Tax Time – As I complete my TurboTax return, I move each item to the Archive 2009 folder as it is processed. I have access to all of my bank documents and receipts. I have scanned all my 1099s, so they are easy to find. I eFile the return, and create one large PDF/A file containing every relevant document for the year, including a meaningful, auto-generated table-of-contents.
8. Audit Time – I’m part of the random audit. I bring my laptop to the IRS, and we go over all of my receipts online. I give them a CD with my 2009 PDF/A file on it, which they immediately print out for filing and later review.
It’s unlikely that any one company could drive the paperless life. None has the reach nor the experience in user interface design today. Absent that, many companies will lead the charge. Those with scanning, storage, Web, and UI design have unique advantages. Some of the required technology gaps are as follows:
1. Intelligent Scanners – There is no reason that a scanner should require a user interface. Scanner OEMs could use our software to determine if a document requires color preservation, resize to the appropriate resolution, binarize, OCR, convert to PDF, and auto-index. New scanners must also be able to accept irregular-shaped objects, perform duplex scanning, and include sheet-feeders. Network scanners should scan directly to a destination Folder system across the Web (without a PC) for under $500.
2. Back-end Processing – Numerous operations should take place on the back end, allowing little or no software to run on mobile devices outside the browser. This includes OCR, document conversion, intelligent indexing and archiving via forms processing, document management, barcode reading, image cleanup, presentment of barcode images to the phone for scanning. The ECM companies have a unique opportunity to dominate the consumer market by extending what they have developed for the business markets.
3. Web-based Presentment – There are numerous image-manipulation technologies that are currently being applied to the distribution of images to browsers, such as Silverlight, ASP.NET, and many others.
4. TurboTax Types – Virtually all companies that build A/P, A/R, inventory, and a host of other applications, are going to find a suddenly increasing need for OCR and related technologies. The TurboTax user, for example, will want to draw a box around an item’s price and description on a credit card bill, or select a 1099 box, and have it automatically entered into their return.
Proprietary and Confidential ©2010 by Paul B. Firth