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Tech types have been predicting for decades that the end of the paper era is at hand. Remember how computers were going to lead to the “paperless office?” Yet it seems that today, with computers everywhere, we generate more paper than ever before. Many states in the U.S. have passed laws recognizing the legality of digital signatures, but for a lot of folks, “having it in writing” still means a “hard copy” – and if we get an important document in electronic format, the first thing we do is print it out so we’ll have a “real” copy to stash in the fire-proof file cabinet.

Many of the companies with which I work – most of which are in the tech industry – still send contracts via snail mail and require paper copies with original signatures even though all the rest of our correspondence and submission of work is done via email.

This distrust of electronic information is probably based on past experience with its sometimes ephemeral nature. Who among us hasn’t ever experienced the frustration of losing important computer files forever due to a software glitch or hardware failure? This “now you see it, now you don’t” aspect of electronic documents makes people nervous when those documents are important legal agreements. Sure, paper documents suffer from their own form of fragility – as anyone who’s lost the cash they stashed under the mattress to a fire can attest – but there’s something comforting about being able to hold that piece of paper in your hand.

I suspect it will be a long time (not in my lifetime) before the populace will accept purely electronic forms of things like employment contracts, marriage licenses, birth certificates, real estate deeds and other important “papers.” But what about the tons of more mundane pieces of paper that clutter up our daily lives? Is it really necessary to have a hundred (or in a large office, a thousand) copies of every corporate memo floating around? Could we take a load off our file cabinets – not to mention our wastebaskets – if we posted routine info such as price lists and standard operating procedures on intranet web sites instead of distributing paper manuals? Would security be improved (along with the need for heavy duty shredders) if we disallowed printing of sensitive information and instead kept it in encrypted computer files?

But it’s not just at the office that paper is being (albeit very slowly) replaced. I wonder how many people there are out there who, like me, no longer subscribe to their local newspapers because they can read it on the web instead? I love not having to fill up the recycle bin with all those old newspapers every week. If you have a kitchen computer (or just a laptop), you can easily bring up recipes on screen when you need them and not have to store bunches of recipe cards or cookbooks. Even this newsletter you’re reading is a case in point; ten years ago I was still getting computer tips newsletters in the mail; now they’re all distributed via email or the web.

Some other replacements for paper have had a harder time catching on. Take ebooks, for example. It’s a wonderful idea: I can carry the equivalent of a hundred or more novels or reference books on vacation with me, stored on a tiny flash memory card. If I want to find a particular scene or description that I read many pages ago, I can use search software to go to it quickly and easily. I can mark where I left off reading without turning down the edges of pages or dealing with bookmarks that fall out.

So why aren’t electronic books wildly popular? It’s not for lack of trying. Publishers have marketed ebooks as PDFs, Microsoft has its own (very functional) Reader software for both PCs and handheld (Pocket PC) computers, and at least a dozen companies have tried, over the years, to sell dedicated ebook reading devices that are more compact and less costly than a full fledged computer.

The most recent attempt to cash in on this market comes from Sony, which this summer is releasing a device in the U.S. called Sony Reader to be sold through the web site and at Borders bookstores (it’s been on the market in Japan for a little over a year and is moderately successful there). It’s about the size of a paperback book (6.9″ x 4.9″ x .5″) and weight about half a pound. The question is whether it will overcome the obstacles that have prevented previous ebook readers from gaining popularity.

Common complaints about readers included short battery life (imagine avidly reading the latest thriller and having the pages all suddenly go blank during an exciting scene), high cost, and proprietary formats. Sony seems to have addressed the first, with a battery that reportedly will last through up to 7500 page turns per charge. With a price between $300 and $400, though, consumers may still balk. In my opinion, in order to gain a real following, an ebook reader is going to need to retail for around $150 or less. Some argue that consumers are paying nearly $400 for the highest end ipods – but I’m not sure the book reading public is ready to shell out to the same degree as the music listening/video watching public. Of course, I could be wrong.

Probably the biggest cause for failure of earlier reading devices was the lack of a standardized file format. The ebook you bought for one device couldn’t be viewed on another company’s reader. And only a limited number of books were available in each format. If you bought a book in .lit (Microsoft Reader) format, you couldn’t read it on your Franklin eBookMan. Another big concern for those of us who like to keep and re-read our books is digital rights management (DRM). As with digital music, ebooks are often coded with limitations intended to prevent copyright violations but which also interfere with a legitimate purchaser’s ability to use the files.

In fact, DRM was the downfall of Sony’s earlier ebook reader. They released the Libre in 2004 and it was hailed for its excellent screen display, but a business model that only allowed you to keep the ebooks you purchased for 60 days (after which they locked up and couldn’t be read) ensured a less than enthusiastic reception in the marketplace. The new Sony Reader supports PDF, TXT, and RTF file formats (and can convert Microsoft DOC files to RTF) along with its own Broadband eBook (BBeB) format. Its new and improved DRM lets you keep the ebooks indefinitely and share them between 6 devices.

What do you think? Are we getting closer to a paperless world? Will it ever happen? Are you using less paper these days – or more? Would you substitute an ebook reader for “real books” if the price was right? Why or why not?

Deb Shinder