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Dreaming Of The Paperless Office? Mobile Isn't Your Savior

Mobile devices enable many things, but I'm skeptical that they make a big impact on reducing paper usage inside companies.

Everyone loves the idea of a paperless office. Many technologies have tried to deliver on that green vision, but none so far have halted our tree-killing ways.

PCs just made it easier for us to print more, while document management systems gave us more to print. Electronic forms, Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and digital signatures - all valiant efforts that, so far, have failed to make much of a dent.

(Check out my other piece, 'The Good, Bad And Ugly of Different Mobile Printing Solutions' )

And while the Internet is rendering paper obsolete in some areas - newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, to name a few - it has replaced it by providing other printable content, ranging from e-mails to cute kitty pics.


Credit: Sheila Hollingworth. Check out her other cartoons.

In that context, can mobile wean us from paper where other technologies have failed? Some certainly think so. Government agencies and city councils have equipped managers and other heavy meeting-goers with tablets with the goal of cutting down on the number of printed memos and presentations. Meanwhile, schools and colleges have used money originally set aside for paper textbooks to buy tablets, e-books and apps.

According to Holly Muscolino, an analyst with IDC, there are two "schools of thought" on how mobile affects print. One is that easy-to-read tablets like the iPad, with its near Letter-size dimensions (8.5" x 11"), will cause "print [volumes] to fall off a cliff."

The other? That office paper usage will continue to be flat or slightly decline, with larger forces like the economy having more impact than mobile.

Muscolino leans towards the latter. "I don't foresee a rapid decline," she said.

Muscolino has hard data to back up that opinion. According to a December 2011 IDC survey she helped oversee, only 22% of organizations said that getting data and docs on their smartphone decreased the amount of pages they were printing. 43% said their print needs stayed the same, while 10% said they actually went up.

Ah yes, but nobody said that squint-inducing smartphones were paper substitutes. What about tablets? Even there, IDC found that most respondents' (38%) print needs were unchanged, while 13% said their print needs increased. Only 22% said the amount of pages they printed dropped.

Large enterprises were especially likely to print more as a result of using smartphones (25%) and tablets (27%).

Moreover, more than half of mobile-carrying respondents said there many instances where "they needed to print, but couldn't," Muscolino said.

For example, an executive trying to read a large Excel file on his tablet may rue that he hadn't printed out a copy in his hotel's Business Center.

Or a salesman who wants to print out copies of his presentation while visiting a customer's office may find his tablet prevented from connecting into the network printers.

In other words, mobile is similar to technologies before it like PCs and the Internet: it accelerates the flow of information and grants us more freedom. The former creates more information to print, while the latter creates more moments when we want to print.

overwhelmed paper

Moreover, tablets, especially the wave of Windows 8-based devices coming out now, are evolving into 'laptablets' and 'tabtops'. These tablets come with keyboards and larger screens, making them perfect for creating content, not just consuming it.

The coming release of Office 2013 for Windows 8 and other mobile OSes such as Android and iOS will also make it easier to create documents, PowerPoints and spreadsheets on your tablet. All of which you might want to print out.

No wonder that IDC forecasts that the global market for products that enable mobile printing will grow from $68.3 million in 2010 to $1 billion in 2015 - an amazing 71.2% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) that Muscolino calls "really hockey stick-like."