Towards the Paperless Office

Like a lot of geeks, I’ve been working lately on Getting Things Done. My tickle file has essentially failed, and I’m not keeping up with my weekly reviews like I should; but the parts of the program I am doing have really helped. It’s led to a noticeable increase in my income, sanity, neatness, and general quality of life. If you’re drowning in a sea of papers, you owe it to yourself to try this.

One of the principles of this system is that you have to file everything rather than just letting it stack up. It occurs to me that I could file pretty damn effectively if I could simply digitize everything, and let my computer search it. I’ve seen a few systems try to do this, but they’ve been pretty weak. Here’s what I think is needed:

A scanner that’s as easy to use as my shredder

I feed a messy stack of paper in. It scans both sides of each page and stores images along with a date tag. It gives me an option to choose a category and add some free text to each page. There’d probably need to be some way of combining pages together. Furthermore it OCRs both sides to deduce keywords and search terms. The OCR doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough. In essence I’m looking for a pure digital equivalent of file folders, binder clips, staples, and a labeler.

I used to think this would take up too much space, but nowadays I’ve got my entire CD collection ripped and stored on my hard drive. All my file cabinets don’t have that much data in them.

What’s needed to make this work:

  1. A great user interface. Most systems for doing this like Ricoh’s eCabinet (which my literary agency just abandoned after struggling with for years) had a hideous user interface. It was designed to sell hardware, not as a real software product.
  2. An excellent sheet feeder, paper handler, and incoming duplexer. This is the Achilles heel of a lot of current scanning hardware.

If it all really worked, and worked well, then it would easily be worth up to about $2000 to me. On the other hand, a system with a poor user interface or clunky hardware, wouldn’t be worth anything. One idea Allen nails is that your filing system has to be dead bang easy and even fun to use. If a system is too complex, too time consuming, or too painful, you’ll avoid using it.1

Of course I’d like this all to run on Mac, though I know that’s not a requirement for many folks, and it may not be a requirement for me for very much longer given the existence of products like Parallels Workstation and VMWare. Any suggestions? Is anyone aware of anything like this?

1 The primary reason my tickle file failed is that I bought what Staples told me was a best-quality file cabinet from Hirsch. It’s not. The edges are sharp and cut; the file folders are held in place by dinky curtain rods instead of a sliding metal plate; and the drawers stick rather than sliding smoothly. It is clearly and obviously inferior to the Hon file cabinet my wife has; and as a result I don’t use it like I should. I really need to do something about fixing that.

3 Responses to “Towards the Paperless Office”

  1. Don Says:

    I used to use a scanner, but it was so slow and the Mac software was so bad I gave up.

    Now, when I want to digitize paper, I use my Canon A95 digital camera. It’s as easy as taking a snapshot (or a lot of snapshots), then sucking the images into the Mac.

    If I really needed it, I’d make or buy a digital-camera copy stand, where I clip the camera in place, put papers on it, snap and go. I’d spend up to $150 for such a stand, especially if it folded flat and I could store it in my bookcase.

    I don’t have OCR, but that would be great. A small matter of programming, because the A95’s JPEGS are easily crisp enough to OCR from.

    My main point is that scanners suck: in size, speed, and software. Digital cameras are the way to go, with some kind of copy stand. Best feature: you can use the camera as a camera, and you can upgrade it independent of the copy stand.

  2. Vincent Says:

    You might want to look at what Fazal Majid has written on the subject:

  3. Don Says:

    As a follow-up to my earlier comment of “use a digital camera”, Google now sponsors open-source OCR software.

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