A decade ago, when former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. was griping about the state's "paper blizzard," it was commonly assumed that technology would someday make routine office paper work as obsolete as manual typewriters.
But, alas, it was not to be.
The electronic wizardry that was supposed to have the nation communicating almost exclusively by computers and telephones has become, instead, just another way to create more, and prettier, paper. And things are only getting worse. This year's hottest high-tech marvel, the analysts say, is the desk-top laser printer, a powerful device that can turn any personal computer operator into a high-volume publisher.
"The paperless office is an idea whose time has thoroughly passed," says Will Zachman, an analyst with International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. "It will be decades before we see any serious developments to get rid of paper."
Although the war on paper has probably been lost for this century, the fight has not been abandoned entirely. But rather than trying to replace paper, business equipment makers competing in the $3-billion document storage market are developing fancy computerized machines that ease the headaches of keeping--and retrieving--paper or its likeness.
The latest high-tech devices range from something as simple, and inexpensive, as Minolta's $25,000 electronic film processor, viewer and printer to FileNet Corp.'s $500,000, computerized, optical laser disk system, the current Cadillac of the industry.
Introduced in late 1984, the FileNet device allows a business to copy up to 20 pages per minute onto an optical disk and to display the images, just minutes later, on any computer terminal connected to the disk. Ted Smith, president of the Costa Mesa-based company estimates that a single system can hold the images of 2.5 million pieces of paper, the equivalent of 266 four-drawer file cabinets.
What to do with an office's paper work is no small problem for the business world. For example, storing a four-drawer file cabinet in a high-rent urban office building can cost as much as $300 a year, according to Bekins Records Management Co., a Los Angeles firm that leases low-cost storage space to the country's biggest paper savers. Still others have estimated the federal government's file storage costs at more than $300 million per year.
Difficult to Find
And even though documents are retained, it doesn't mean that they are easy to find. A company can literally spend days trying to retrieve a customer's file from its archives. And if the file is languishing on some desk, the search can stretch on, causing, at the very least, an annoying wait for the customer as well as the office worker.
Furthermore, new documents, particularly legal, government and financial papers, are often taken out of circulation for days--or even weeks--for duplication and indexing.
"When you have lots of paper and no resources to index it or get back at it again, you might as well throw it away," says Jerry Walters, vice president and self-described chief scientist at Integrated Automation in Alameda, a manufacturer of custom-designed optical disk storage systems.
Until the advent of the microprocessor in the late 1970s--the same circuitry that powers personal computers--document storage technology had not gone much beyond its infancy nearly 50 years ago when a New York bank with the aid of Eastman Kodak, started the microfilm industry.
Dubbed "shrink and store," microfilming reduces an ordinary sheet of paper to a square of film about the size of a fingerprint. The technology proved quite useful during World War II, when incoming and outgoing "Victory Mail" to the European battlefronts was microfilmed and, then, reproduced to save on transportation costs.
But as any public library patron or visitor to a county clerk's office can testify, microfilm and microfiche have not been particularly user friendly. Finding the right reel of microfilm or the correct microfiche card is often just the beginning of a series of fumblings to insert the film in the viewer, adjust the lens and then read the document. Attempting to reprint a document can unleash a whole new set of frustrations.
The document storage business, says one executive only half-jokingly, used to operate by the "three F's: film it, file it and forget it." And the goal of all the new electronic technology, he adds, is helping users "find it" as well.
"The original purpose of microfilm was to photograph something and put it away. And later they started to wonder why they shouldn't be able to get back at those documents," explains David Colson, who distributes Minolta microfilm systems throughout Southern California.
Microfilm Still Dominant