Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Digital paper drawbacks

Digital paper drawbacks

Is there any chance that digital paper could become as ubiquitous as regular paper? Probably not, for a number of reasons.

Paper has some real advantages over digital interfaces. It is cheap to manufacture and resilient. You can view a whole page of information at virtually any angle and without having to scroll up and down it with a mouse. It does not run out of batteries nor break if you drop it. It does not require a password or technical support. If it does get damaged, it is cheap to replace.

For all that, researchers at companies such as Xerox and E-ink are working to unite paper with technology to create digital paper (see box, How it works). What advantages can digital paper offer compared with its tried and trusted analogue counterpart?

As Xerox and E-ink point out, once you have written on a piece of paper, you cannot easily return it to its original state. You certainly cannot keep using an eraser or liquid paper to remove mistakes or alter content thousands of times. But, if the manufacturers are to be believed, you can with digital paper. The office printer will still be used for some tasks, they say (an argument that works well for Xerox, a leading printer company). However, with digital paper, a company can drastically reduce the amount of regular paper it keeps in stock.

So when - and, more importantly, if - digital paper becomes a viable technology as cheap as normal paper, will it take over from regular paper? The answer is, probably not.

One of the main reasons paper has proven so phenomenally useful and enduring is not just its simplicity. It also offers great flexibility as to what tool may be used to record information on it. Pens, pencils, paint, crayons, charcoal: just about anything can write on paper and create a whole range of multi-coloured effects. Digital paper, at the moment, is monochromatic and requires a writing device that can apply a localised electrical charge to create patterns.

It will also never be as ubiquitous as paper, which is used in a huge range of printing and packaging purposes - writing notes on the back of a digital cigarette packet or advertising flyer is not likely to happen any time soon.

In a corporate environment, these problems are less of a drawback than they are in the outside world, since notes on restaurant napkins do not usually have much validity for business purposes and office managers will do their best to provide a constant supply of electrically charged pencils where digital paper is used.

Instead, there is a bigger drawback for companies, which contradicts the very selling point of digital paper - the ease with which it can be altered. Tamper with regular paper and someone is likely to find out. Tamper with digital paper and no one will be any the wiser. For permanent corporate files, therefore, paper will continue to be the primary medium of record.

This is not to negate the advantages of digital paper entirely: there is certain to be a niche for digital paper in most companies. Many organisations, for example, use low-grade paper for rough documents and more expensive paper for official documents. Digital paper offers a potential substitute for the low-grade paper that could cut annual paper costs substantially in many cases.

But until it combines the true versatility of paper, digital paper stands little chance of ousting it.

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