Electronic paper: just a pipe ream?

Summary:Form warsCentral to that view of a paper-free standard is the notion that forms will be able to be filled out on screen rather than requiring paper documents. Most market watchers believe that this area has seen major advances.

Form wars

Central to that view of a paper-free standard is the notion that forms will be able to be filled out on screen rather than requiring paper documents. Most market watchers believe that this area has seen major advances.

"We are getting closer," says Sanjeev Gupta, manager of professional services for Fuji Xerox Australia. "We are now able to translate and use the information from paper documents a lot more effectively and efficiently through scanning, digitisation and structured formatting, so it can more readily be used by business processes. We are also able to workflow electronic images and information around the organisation without physically passing around heavy yellow envelopes full of dog-eared documents."

"The area of forms has really worked its way onto the CIO's radar screen," says Adobe's Doolan. "CIOs want to rev up the octane level."

Adobe's Acrobat has had great success in establishing itself as a de facto standard for transmitting digital versions of paper documents. "You'd be hard pressed to come across an enterprise that doesn't disseminate information electronically as a PDF file," says Doolan. "Acrobat Reader is part of every standard operating environment I come across these days."

Adobe now hopes to translate that visibility into the forms market. The acquisition of Accelio has seen it heavily promote the notion of Acrobat as a collaboration and forms environment. A key part of that switch has been promoting the use of XML within PDF files, so that documents actually indicate their structure rather than simply attempting an exact reproduction of their original formatting.

"XML is now an important part of the exchanging of data," says Doolan. "The tightened intelligence within the electronic document is critically important."

The solution has made some headway. "The combination of the XML architecture and the Reader extensions will attract enterprises with lots of form-based processes, especially in financial services and government, where large numbers of people guide digital and paper documents through standardised processes," Gartner analyst Rita Knox wrote in April 2003.

As well as competing with other document and forms automations providers such as ScanSoft, Adobe also faces new competition from Microsoft, which is promoting the InfoPath technology incorporated into Office as another means of automating forms systems. Gartner analyst Michael Silver describes InfoPath as "an attempt to persuade enterprises to weave Office products into the fabric of their business processes. Microsoft wants enterprises to perceive Office 2003 as more valuable to the business rather than just a commodity productivity suite."

Doolan professes not to be worried: "InfoPath to a degree plays in the forms space but it's a departmental solution," he says. "Our solution goes beyond the firewall. It's platform-independent and it is external to proprietary systems. PDF is an open and published standard. It's not vendor-specific."

Whatever the merits of that particular battle, analysts argue that no single technology is likely to approve useful for all needs. "Enterprises that implement large-scale content management systems have to consider whether PDF or other formats are consistently appropriate for representing, searching, sharing and protecting their information," warns Gartner's Toby Bell.

One persistent problem, whatever technology is used, is how to authenticate documents that don't exist in paper format. "Technologists have promised that electronic signatures would help usher in the 'paperless office' and streamline the way enterprises conduct their affairs," Gartner analyst Arabella Hallawell notes in a 2002 commentary. "But, despite much legislation that recognises the use of e-signatures and new technologies that can substitute for a person's physical stamp of approval, enterprise adoption of e-signatures remains limited. An uncertain legal environment and the heavy costs associated with advanced authentication infrastructures have been the primary inhibitors to enterprise adoption."

"The move to electronic approvals will be a slow one through 2005," Hallawell predicts. "During this period, enterprises should focus on developing mechanisms and procedures for how approvals can be recorded, audited, and stored during the business process, rather than focusing on the selection of advanced electronic authentication technologies."

Acceptance of electronic signatures is likely to improve as they become more widespread. Many courier services now routinely use PDAs or other portable devices to capture consumer signatures, and an increasing number of electronic payment terminals ask users to sign on a screen rather than a piece of paper. As such technologies become more commonplace, market acceptance is likely to grow.

-Technologists have promised that electronic signatures would help usher in the 'paperless office', but . . . enterprise adoption of e-signatures remains limited."
Maintaining confidentiality can also be more difficult in a paperless world: it's far easier and quicker to forward a file to a thousand people than it is to mail a letter. Because many Office file formats also show revision histories, "invisible" data can also be leaked (something that's rarely a problem with a printout).

Microsoft's solution to this problem has been the creation of Windows Rights Management, which enables file-level control of document data. However, this solution only works with appropriate server-level controls.

Other options are possible. "PDF can also be employed as a neutral distribution format, but since Acrobat supports translation of many MS Word metadata sources (properties, Word reviewer comments), proper training on PDF creation is also required to ensure confidential information is not maintained as PDF metadata," META Group analyst Timothy Hickernell points out.

The future
Even companies that have invested heavily in seeing some part of the electronic paper vision realised concede it will take some time to occur. "Usually, there is still an output device of some sort required," says Fuji Xerox's Gupta. "This, perhaps, has more to do with the limitations of people than the limitations of technology. Most people still like to print things out and look at them in hard copy--especially when longer and complex documents such as 20-page contracts are sent electronically."

"The paperless office is far from a reality," continues Gupta. "What is real is that paper in the office has become a lot easier to manage due to the cost-effective technologies available to efficiently extract meaningful information from paper documents then workflow that information around the organisation for further processing."

That may be as far as we get for a while. META analyst Andrew Warzecha confidently predicts that a paperless environment won't be a reality for any major global corporations this side of 2010.

It seems that conventional paper has a way of surviving despite other advances. At the end of Asterix and Cleopatra, the titular queen presents a series of precious paper manuscripts to the Gaulish heroes as a gesture of thanks. Two millennia later, would anyone be ready to turn her down in favour of a digitally annotated scan?

Bad influence
To date, sales of tablet PCs--one of the most hyped realisations of the general concept of electronic paper--haven't exactly set the world on fire. Six months after the November 2003 launch, IDC announced that around 70,000 of the devices had shipped. While that isn't an abject failure, it still falls a long way short of the vision recently proclaimed by Microsoft corporate vice president for Tablet PC and Smart Personal Objects Technology, Bill Mitchell: "Microsoft's goal is that, within five years, most mobile PCs will have tablet PC functionality, such as the digitiser and the pen input. We're working to make that the case sooner than five years."

To boost the tablet concept, Microsoft has been actively promoting the concept to technology influencers such as IT managers and journalists. In one notable example, journalists attending the 2003 Tech Ed conference were supplied with a tablet device to use for taking notes during presentations and interviews.

While the offer was eagerly taken up, the outcome was generally disappointing. Handwriting recognition capabilities on tablets remain limited, especially given the relatively slow processor speeds available (a necessary compromise to achieve any kind of battery life).

A more persistent problem was attempting to enter text (recognised or otherwise) with the same speed and fluency as normal paper. "We believe that pen-based input is a very natural experience," Mitchell recently remarked. The author would beg to differ. While I make no claims for the neatness of my handwriting, at least I can re-read my notes on paper, which is more than I could say for the tablet equivalent. In practice, it was quicker and more accurate to type the notes, largely defeating the whole concept.

Microsoft conducted a similar exercise in group participation at its 2003 CEO Summit, offering tablets to all the executives who attended. Tellingly, Bill Gates opening remark was: "I hope the tablets are working, but I also hope they won't be too distracting."

In one sentence, he encapsulated two other issues with the tablet concept. Firstly, the technology is still immature. Secondly, if you are equipped with a wirelessly-equipped, fully functional PC, what's to stop you ignoring the speechmakers and checking your e-mail?

However, the biggest problem became obvious early on. Owing to a last-minute delivery hitch, a scant half hour of training was provided for using the devices, and many journalists complained that this wasn't enough time to become familiar with the technology. Few were likely to have made the same remark if presented with a pen and a few sheets of paper.

Executive summary
Core technologies which would enable the world of electronic paper include:

  • Handwriting recognition and inking technologies. These have been developed by Microsoft, amongst others, for use on tablet PCs and other devices, but aren't generally perceived as mature products.
  • Low-cost, high resolution screens. Screen technology continues to get thinner and brighter, but battery life remains an issue and demand for screens for conventional notebooks soaks up much of the available supply.
  • Advanced forms technology. Software in this field has advanced rapidly; for many businesses, the main challenge is how to integrate processes which use both print and paper forms. Web services may prove to be a key solution.

Subscribe now to Australian Technology & Business magazine.

Topics: Developer

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.