For many years now, I have been trying to rid myself of the use of paper. Something about paper makes me very nervous. It is too easily lost or damaged and it costs a great deal in terms of trees and transport costs. At this point in my life, I read all of my comics digitally, all of my magazines digitally and I print less than 10 pages a year [and these are usually for tax receipts]. Admittedly, I am still a significant user of paper when I am in the “library”. Also, we continue to receive a daily newspaper in my house and we buy a couple more over the course of the week. These are the kinds of things I do because it’s cheaper than divorce.

I admit that I still prefer the analog approach in certain situations. And that frustrates me. It should not be, for example,  that it is so hard to mimic pad and paper in hardware and software. Pencil and paper are cheap and intuitive to use [if a person is literate]. I’ve seen some remarkable programs for saving digital notes, sharing them, posting them, listing them in every order possible, archive them … you get the idea. But there really is nothing as simple as reaching for a tiny pad and paper in your shirt pocket. Considering that this form of data recording is barely a step above chiseling tweets into stone, one could easily argue that notetaking is from the earliest technologies ever developed.

At one of the companies that I am very lucky to be working with, they have a standard looking big white board. The board is erasable and one sees that it has been used for multiple purposes over time. It is actually interesting how useful a product can be, even if you can’t pinch your fingers to shrink it or slide your hand across to progress to the next page of information.

I recently saw one of the members of this company write a comment on a yellow “sticky note” and then place it directly on the board. I literally felt electricity go up and down my spine. This was an analog atrocity, of apocalyptic proportions. The people sitting around the table, in front of this whiteboard, were all in possession of a smart phone. The computers that they used to send a man to the moon were millions of times less powerful than the five smart phones around the table. Nevertheless, the company member was using sticky paper on a board.

I looked at the company member and said that I could design a computer version of such a board, that would allow us to make any changes in the shape, color, 3-D appearance and more of the virtual whiteboard. Virtual Sticky-notes could be added to the board via a very simple touch interface. You could even use gestures to open a note, to flag a note (as having been read) and of course, to share a note with anyone in the world (including posting it on FB, Twitter, Google+ et al).

The company associate then spoke the words that no computer engineer ever wants to hear. He said “look how simple and easy it is to record a note with the sticky-note.” The developer personality in me went mad. I thought to myself … “easy? easy? computers are not meant to be easy. Otherwise everyone will use them and learn all our secrets”. Then, I took 10 virtual breaths and calmed down.

The real and obvious problem was that he was right. There is no computer interface presently on the market that can provide a perfect simulation of adding a sticky note to a virtual board. You could buy a touchscreen that is the size of an average whiteboard. But these are incredibly expensive and thus a very impractical alternative to real sticky notes. We could manage our notes via our phones. But getting a sense of the entire whiteboard-worth of sticky notes, would be very hard through the relatively small window of the smartphone. We could use a projector to project any size whiteboard, on which to place the real sticky notes. But that requires that the projector always be on, and that is just wasteful of energy.

If you look through any virtual marketplace, you will see many versions of notetaking software. It is wholly appreciated that notetaking is a critical function for many people on a day-to-day basis. If some developer  really did have a great simulator, that software would be worth a fortune. Microsoft’s One Note is an excellent tool for recording notes, which could include any form of text, freehand drawings,sound or videos. But once again, nothing is as simple as a sticky note.

In trying to imagine a virtual system that would be as technically easy to use as a whiteboard, I think the only option will be a complete holographic projection of a notebook and pen. The same hologram could present a keyboard to the user. And by the time these type of personalized holograms are standard fare, voice recognition really will have been perfected, and thus will be yet another way to record a sticky note.

Imagine walking into your house and realizing that you need to pick up the chairs at 3 PM. In the holographic version of the home, the user will simply be able to say “new note”, “chairs at 3 PM”, “endnote”. Or the user will use hand gestures to perform the same tasks. Perhaps in the near future, we will really have totally wearable computing and this will include a brain interface that literally allows one to think about the sticky note’s contents, and have this sticky notes contents saved in a database.

From my description above, it is clear that it would take a lot of technology(/money) to simulate a sticky note board. This is a classic case where simulating an apparently simple task can be very difficult. Developers, by the way, have to point this out: sometimes an analog solution is so good, you have to REALLY make the software worth using. If not, the users’ frustration will be palpable.

To be fair to the digital sticky note group, we have not really been comparing apples with apples. The nature of a physical sticky note is that you must be physically close to the whiteboard to post something, and you can’t see if remotely. This is very limiting. If all your sticky notes are digital, you can save them, share them, back them up and so on. You could do all types of manipulations on the sticky notes and even turn them into an ever evolving task list. Once digital, almost anything is possible.

Paper is standing at the edge of an abyss. And CPU-Man is laughing meanly as the world recognizes that “library” paper has limited uses.

Thanks for listening

My website is at http://mtc.expert