Paper is the technology of the future

Broadband may be the Internet's killer app, but new technology only means more paper, say experts
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

So much for the paperless office. Technology may kill off everything from telcos to PDAs, but paper will be with us for the next twenty years at least, according to experts.

That was the conclusion of key speakers gathered in Berlin for the 5th annual 20/20: Vision on Print conference. The conference aims to explore our relationship with technology over the next twenty years, and while there was disagreement about how we will get there, everyone agreed that the future's killer app will be broadband. But paper, while it might not be revolutionary, isn't going away any time soon.

BT's own chief technologist Peter Cochrane believes the telco's days are numbered. He sees the future in personal networks -- "blue boxes" installed in homes, cars and shops which communicate wirelessly and intelligently with each other. "Then it is goodnight Vienna for the network companies," he said.

Cochrane finds it hard to believe that consumers will be satisified with the bandwidth currently offered by broadband companies, and claims there is no reason why we can't have hundreds of megabits per second of bandwidth pumped into our homes. "The only thing that prevents people downloading whole movies on the Net is bandwidth in the local loop," he says. "It is not technological issues that prevent it, it is business and political issues which slow it down."

He also suggested that the telco might abandon its copper in favour of fibre and pointed out that holes in the ground are BT's "greatest asset".

IDC analyst Amy Harris agreed that the future of broadband lies in cable rather than copper and is convinced current DSL services are merely a stopgap to much faster services. This is a view shared by venture capitalist Jon Auerbach. "DSL is just an appetiser because the content doesn't currently exist to support major bandwidth," he said.

PDAs will also have a bleak future, if the speakers are to be believed. Auerbach challenged any member of the audience to keep up with his speech using a Palm device and pointed out that the majority of the audience were still writing on paper. "PDAs five years from now will not exist as they do today," he claims. He and other panellists think the mobile phone will take over from the PDA in the next few years.

The audience, however, were not convinced. In a vote of around 300 delegates, 50 percent thought there was a future for PDAs.

Paper, meanwhile, is predicted to have a great future by delegates and speakers alike. In 1999 three trillion pages were printed in homes and offices worldwide and that figure is not predicted to fall. Paul Curlander, chairman of printing firm Lexmark predicts an explosion of printing, due largely to the increasing popularity of digital photography. Home printing of digital photos is predicted to rise from 2.5 billion prints in 1999 to 15 billion in 2004. The Internet is also playing a part in keeping print alive. "More Internet access means more printing," said Curlander.

Lexmark's vice president of research John Zbrozek believes technofear plays its part in keeping people in touch with print. "Paper still serves as a vital communication tool and we are a little insecure about some of the other technologies," he said.

Paper though will undergo a transformation and Lexmark outlined how in 2020 it will come with embedded video, images and sound. "The future holds significant technology breakthroughs," said Lexmark's Curlander. "Paper will be multimedia, a normal page with electronic storage capability."

The audience seemed to agree. Only 27 percent could see themselves working in a paperless office and 97 percent admitted to making a hard copy of a Web page.

BT's Cochrane is not impressed. "Paper and print is a minority medium for old people," he said.

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