The Paperless Future | Are We There Yet?

Ever wondered about going entirely digital and ditching paper entirely? Here’s a review of the different types of digital paper solutions out there, and my opinion on solving this age-old problem of achieving a paperless future.

I’ve long been tantalised by the prospect of digital paper. As a student, I always hated having to lug around a heavy backpack of worksheets/notes/textbooks, when a tablet of some form could condense 5kg worth of paper into less than 1kg. Heck, you could bring the whole bookshelf with you.

And nowadays, with iPads and other tablets this is far from impossible.

Yet for all the hype of digital paper solutions, we still haven’t cracked the code, as I will later explain for each of the solutions available. Why is the dream of a paperless future so difficult to achieve?

First, however, I’d like to approach this logically and state the functions of paper that digital paper must be able to replicate. Your device must capture the entire range of writing, drawing and reading-related activities that paper allows you to do.

  1. Read naturally. This means little eyestrain, and comfortable reading all-round, which is both a software and hardware problem. For example it must not be too heavy, but it must also be able to display content properly.
  2. Write naturally. It needs to be as convenient and comfortable as writing on paper.
  3. Annotation. You need to be able to annotate freely everywhere you are simulating paper.
  4. Immediacy/reliability. This means you can conveniently and very quickly write something down. This is useful for brainstorming, or for quickly taking a phone number (that’s what I mean when I say it has to be really convenient). You can reliably write things down as they come to mind. It’s immediate and fuss-free. 
  5. Compare documents. You have to be able to compare ideas across papers or documents. You can place a bunch of papers next to one another and compare them and draw connections across the entire breadth of whatever you have while maintaining that overall view of all you have. And you can do so without hassle. This means that after the initial set-up of navigating menus to retrieve your papers (much like retrieving from a filing cabinet) you are able to pull them in and out of your workspace easily.
  6. Convenient organisation and true portability. This means that given good organisation habits, you are able to bring your digital papers wherever you go, and export them to whatever format you need. You’ll also need to be able to edit them, including the digital pen ink, wherever you go. This means that like sending someone a Photoshop file (PSD), you should be able to send this and have someone else edit it. But the difference here is that it should be editable everywhere, from your phones to your computers, because paper is more “mainstream” than Photoshop design work. If you do need to print it (ewww) you should also be able to, at least until the rest of the world catches up with your technologically-advanced ass.

I will be referring to these as I review the various digital paper solutions available today, so keep them in mind.

iPad Pro / Microsoft Surface line/ Typical laptop-tablet hybrid with pen

So this is pretty common. You have a typical hi-res touchscreen. You also have a pen that’ll allow you to sketch and write on your screen. You can rest your hand on the screen so writing is more natural. Sometimes, this last feature isn’t available, which means it’s outdated.

I personally use a Surface 3. It is a beautiful, immensely versatile device. It’s much like an iPad Pro in that it offers an active digitizer Wacom-like pressure-sensitive pen (it’s an N-Trig pen, by the way). You can doodle on OneNote, and with the new Windows Ink Workspace and Microsoft Edge, you can write in many different places and in many different ways. There is even a great app called Drawboard PDF which allows you to annotate PDFs and it does its job really well.

For each of the criterion above I’ll discuss what it gets right and what it gets wrong.

  1. Read naturally. Depends on how big the screen is. It always gets pure text right, because that’s easy to manipulate. Even your phone can do that. But when you add diagrams and pictures, you will want the right size to display the content as it was meant to be viewed. If you’re looking at a PDF of a textbook, you need to see each full page at a glance, with minimal zooming in and out.
  2. Write naturally. Somewhat decent. You can put your hand on the display as you write, and that’s good. But sliding a pen against a smooth glass panel is not natural. We crave friction to give us control over our writing.
    Also, there is a lag/latency which is offputting.
  3. Annotation. Brilliantly done, just depends on which apps you use.
  4. Immediacy/reliability. Usually you can do this. The Surface line makes it particularly convenient, by just clicking your pen you can bring up an empty OneNote page and start writing.
  5. Compare documents. Terrible. Even if you have a big screen, which hampers portability, you can put max 2 documents side by side and compare. There are also no apps that I’m aware of that allow you to easily compare two pages from the same document. You’ll have to open your document twice and place it side by side to compare.
  6. Convenient organisation. I personally don’t think this is something that’s done well. OneNote, for example, is difficult to export, sometimes impossible. It’s also almost impossible to print out or share. You also have syncing issues all the time, and organising all the folders is a serious hassle because of how difficult it is. But I doubt this is a big problem. We’ve been able to create good file explorers in both Windows and Mac, and just need to adopt that strategy here and have a universal format and app for digital paper.

reMarkable

Now this is something quite unique and very new. It’s also what prompted me to write this article.

It’s humbly named the reMarkable , and it’s actually really interesting for its unique approach to digital paper. It uses Codex, a custom Linux-based OS optimised for low-latency e-paper, so you know they’ve really put in effort into making this work.

Let’s quickly run through the main selling points.

  1. E-Ink display. You’ve probably seen a Kindle around so there you go. But E-Ink is slow, you say. Don’t worry, apparently they’ve upgraded this tech to have 60Hz refresh rates like your typical computer monitor. They chose E-Ink so that it looks a lot more natural than a computer screen, and a lot more like paper.
  2. Standard pen like the one in the Surface line, but it doesn’t require a battery. It also allows you to tilt the pen like a pencil to have a broader line drawn (something that the Apple Pencil can also do).
  3. Friction between pen and screen, supposedly feels truly natural. Screen is plastic, so it’s not smooth like glass.

For each of the criterion above I’ll discuss what it gets right and what it gets wrong.

    1. Read naturally. Great, because E-Ink. It’ll look a lot more like actual paper. But screen size at 10.3 inches seems a little too small for PDFs to display well in full. I’ve used a Surface 3 with 10.8 inches display and I can tell you it’s not big enough. You need something like 12-14 inches.
    2. Write naturally. Because of the friction in addition to standard pen features, this should be golden.
      But then I’ve seen the promotional videos and we can see right here (play it at 0.25 speed) that there is a lag/latency like the Surface line.
    3. Annotation. From what it looks like, you’ll be able to do this well.
    4. Immediacy/reliability. Unlike the Surface, this doesn’t offer (as far as I can tell) any way to quickly take down notes. But we’ll have to see once it has launched.
    5. Compare documents. Terrible. See above. There’s just no way a screen that size can do this.
    6. Convenient organisation and true portability. Decent. It allows you to live sync your notes to the cloud as you write. It also supports most formats like PDFs and ePUBs, which are good for bringing around. But even these formats have their problems, such as whether the digital ink can be edited on a different machine. But it’s a simple software issue that can be resolved if not by them then by someone else (eventually. For now it’s not resolved so you’ll have to deal with it), so I wouldn’t worry about this as much.
    7. Bonus! It’s a single use device, so you’re not gonna be distracted like you would if you use a computer, tablet or phone. I think the benefit of that is understated; too many times today many of us find it difficult to focus when doing work on a multi-use device, because of all the notifications and hence constant distractions. But this also makes the price tag (500 SGD if preorder, twice that if not) harder to swallow.   

Lenovo YogaBook

It’s basically a tablet with a Wacom tablet attached to it.

The pen is essentially similar to the Wacom pens. But you can change the nib to an actual ink nib, put paper on the Wacom tablet thing and write on it like this.

Nicely enough, you can use any sort of paper you want, not just the special Lenovo paper. And if you need a keyboard, the Wacom tablet turns into one, like so:

Apparently the keyboard is pretty bad though, and I’m not surprised. It’s really awkward typing on an onscreen keyboard on my Surface, because keyboards work best when they’re tactile due to the widespread practice of touch-typing.

And it’s not from the Yoga line if it can’t do this.

Yes, complete with overflowing popcorn you won’t have to clean up because the folks down in marketing will do it for you.

Anyway, same as before, here’s my evaluation of this.

  1. Read naturally. Similar to Surface line.
  2. Write naturally. Fantastic. You’re actually writing with a pen. You could think of it as a clipboard for your paper, which also digitises your writing live as you write.
  3. Annotation. Probably doable. I think this is looking like the one thing we can do very well with current solutions.
  4. Immediacy/reliability. Similar to Surface line.
  5. Compare documents. Terrible. Similar to Surface line.
  6. Convenient organisation and true portability. Lenovo has developed a Notesaver application for all your notes, so that’s already a point docked from them in terms of portability. You can export the stuff you save but that’s not very viable as you’ll have to manually export them and save them somewhere else. Then there’s the issue of whether, once exported, they can even be edited. That’s the problem with these solutions by many OEMs; they assume you won’t want to store them for future edits, and that you’ll always have their tablet with you when half the time they’re going to change the app and your documents are nothing but scans or pictures that can’t be edited much (other than drawing on top of them).

Overall this is similar to the Surface line, except that you can use it as an actual Wacom tablet, and you can write with actual paper. Oh, it also comes in both Windows and Android versions, and the Android version (which they’re marketing more heavily) has been heavily customised to create a more PC-like experience, such as with floating windows. That’s pretty cool.

Moleskine with Livescribe Pen

This is a solution that puts the device secondary to the paper.

There are a couple that do the same job, but basically you have a special pen and special paper (that is dotted or lined or gridded) and you just go ahead and write in it. When your pen connects to WiFi all your notes will be saved in the cloud.

And it allows for live saving of your notes. As you write, you’ll see what you write appear on your screen. But the reMarkable does literally the same thing too, actually.

It seems like a good way to bridge the gap between paper and the digital world, but is it more than a stopgap measure? Let’s see…

  1. Read naturally. Depends on the device you read it in. This is just a good way to digitise your written work.
  2. Write naturally. Fantastic. You’re actually writing with a pen.
    But then the pen is also going to be very bulky and that may be uncomfortable.
  3. Annotation. None whatsoever. This is hardly a true digital paper solution.
  4. Immediacy/reliability. Imagine owning one pen and having to bring that everywhere you go. You also need to bring a special notebook. So it depends on your usage. If you have a favourite pen and notebook and are used to this practice then everything will be fine.
    Do note you can print out the special paper.
    There are also some pens that allow you to write on literally any paper. But they’re also bulkier which is an issue.
  5. Compare documents. All your written work is available offline to peruse. So it’s just paper with a digital backup.
  6. Convenient organisation and true portability. Your written work can be exported as images. You can do what you like with them after that.

The big problem with this method is that this just digitises whatever you do on paper. You are still tethered to paper, with all its inconveniences. It’s just that you have all your work backed up to the cloud.

What we want is for zero dependence on paper whatsoever, and for optimal comfort when working digitally. And none of the solutions offered right now are capable of doing this.

Now, in review, let’s look at the areas we are generally doing well in, and what we’re not.

  1. Read naturally. Generally this is good. Whether you’re using E-Ink or Retina displays, our documents generally look great. I believe we just need an A4 paper sized display in order to display most content nicely.
  2. Write naturally. In general, we’re looking at the Surface approach which does this decently well, but not entirely.
    The reMarkable approach makes writing feel natural, in theory, due to the friction.
    The last problem that isn’t solved yet is latency. The lag between the time you “write” and the time the ink appears on-screen needs to be virtually zero. It’s not bad nowadays, but still perceptible and thus annoying.
  3. Annotation. Very well done, just need the right software.
  4. Immediacy/reliability. Generally good.
  5. Compare documents. Virtually nothing does this well.
  6. Convenient organisation and true portability. Generally bad due to a lack of standards.

So it looks like we have to have less latency when using the pen, an ability to compare documents, and convenient organisation and true portability. The rest of the ingredients are there.

I think the latency is a problem that will soon be solved with faster ways to transmit information wirelessly, and faster computers.

Convenient organisation will require a redesigning of literally everything from the ground-up. That’s gonna be difficult but doable. Someone needs to pull a Steve Jobs and seriously look at all aspects of this issue to solve it.

The biggest hindrance in my opinion is comparing documents. How are you supposed to do this? You can’t carry around a couple of these devices, can you? And you can’t carry around a huge screen because that would defeat the purpose of digital paper, which is portability. Perhaps as flexible display technologies are developed, we’ll be able to do this. We need to have a huge “whiteboard” sort of thing, where you can have a lot of papers on-screen at once, yet with the ability to fold it up and bring it around easily. That is probably going to be a problem because not only does your display need to be flexible/foldable, it also need to be very light, and thin, and yet have the active digitiser technology that allows you to write naturally.

For now, I think the best solution is getting a reMarkable. As for comparing documents, you’ll just have to print them out for now. And convenient organisation will continue to be an issue for a while until someone implements a standard.

To end off, ever since the Egyptians carried around rolls of parchment/papyrus and stone tablets to build pyramids, we’ve been wishing for a way to combine the two. Okay, not really, but still we dream on.

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