The Reboot: Going (Mostly) Paperless


I’m rebooting my life. After 10 years at the BBC, I’m switching careers and running my own business full-time. And that’s not the only big switch going on around here — I’m also moving from Windows to Mac for just about everything. Moving everything to the Mac doesn’t just affect my business, it shapes the very heart of my digital world. It also introduces its own interesting challenges.

Entrepreneur or ordinary consumer, regular TAB readers may find these are problems we have all faced. Finding solutions has been challenging and fun in equal measure — so it seems prudent to share them here. If I do a good job, maybe my solutions will work for you, too.

Going (Mostly) Paperless

I’m no eco-warrior. I’m too old and just don’t have the energy for all that worrying. Plus, I like my double-quilted, ultra-soft, aloe-infused toilet paper. I know, it kills the Earth — and I am a scoundrel. A scoundrel with a pampered bum.

That said, 10 years ago it seemed no one (besides hemp-wearing hippies) gave a toss about The Environment. Today, governments are awarding grants and tax relief to eco-friendly companies. The take-home message is, look, The Environment is big, it’s probably going to be around for a while, so we’d better take it seriously.

Going mostly paperless is one easy way to show a bit of eco-love. Forget all that nonsense about being completely paperless — only the most dedicated geeks/tree-huggers ever achieve that, and, to be perfectly honest, it’s often impractical. We don’t live in a world that tolerates the paperless model. Not yet. But, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The benefits are tremendous. Over three years of correspondence, bills, statements and other documents now live on my iDisk — the original hard copies shredded and recycled. I can’t believe how much office space I’ve reclaimed!

You can only imagine the pleasure I felt the first time I put my system to the test; I needed to find some obscure cable account information. It took me all of six seconds with a simple Spotlight search. Bliss.

Finding my Feet

To get to this point I spent a good few weeks digitizing every bit of paperwork I found in my home office, and after a bit of stumbling, found my feet by settling on a solution that worked for me without needing any software beyond the scanner interface and the tools already baked into Mac OS X.

I use an HP Photosmart C5280 — one of those typical printer/scanner/copier combo devices that seemed so impressive five years ago. This particular model has been out for about two years now, but the more recent offerings from HP have nearly identical software.

Just a quick word on the software, which I have run on both Mac and Windows machines. Most of the Windows-based OEM software bundled with it is horrible — big, garish windows with custom buttons and controls that were obviously chosen because the designers figured “big, bold and vomit-like” equaled “user-friendly and intuitive.” Thankfully, the Mac version of the software doesn’t suffer quite the same fate; most of it is in line with the sleek, elegant lines of Leopard.

First up is the main scan control interface (see photo below). This presents all the options and controls you need for scanning a document: defining part or all areas of a document to scan; rotation; resolution; color; and the file format of the final scan. I chose PDF. I did not use HP’s own optical character recognition (OCR) software because it scans only in black and white, often screws up important text (turning, say, an account number into bizarre hieroglyphs) and, worst of all, the final document format is Microsoft Word.

HP Scan Pro - Main Window

Rather than opting for HP’s OCR output, choosing “Scan to: PDF File” yields exactly the right results; images are faithfully scanned and reproduced, while text is properly rendered in the final PDF.

HP Scan Pro - scanning progress bar

Once you have made your choices, the final scan usually takes about 10 or so seconds to complete.

Scanned PDF in Adobe Acrobat

The final scanned document — in this screenshot, as it appears in Adobe Acrobat Pro — is a faithful reproduction of the original.

Scanned documents contain real selectable text

The real benefit from turning your scans into PDF documents is that all the text they contain is real. Not images of text. Actual text. Text that can be selected. Text that can be copied to the clipboard.

Spotlight results

Even better, all that text is automatically indexed and almost immediately searchable in Spotlight.

Happy Hippies

If you’re looking to embrace a truly all-digital lifestyle, going paperless has to be one of your goals. Maybe this solution can help you get there without breaking the bank buying into some of the “end-to-end” scanning and archiving solutions available. (I’ve tried NeatReceipts — it was not ideal for me, your mileage may vary.)

I use Adobe Acrobat to read and manipulate my PDF documents once they’re saved, but you don’t need such expensive software to do that. Every copy of Mac OS X has Preview, and that’s more than enough for reading and performing basic edits.

And there’s the point: My desire to go all-digital is driven by my needs as a freelance media professional, small business owner and tech-savvy individual who wants to get his life in order. Mac OS X supports me with most of the tools I need, and they’re right there from day one, out of the box.

In 10 years no one will use paper any more, and they’ll look back at articles like this one and laugh at how much we old-timers struggled with the transition out of the Stupid Ages. What’s really funny is that it’s not so hard at all. Give it a try — you won’t be disappointed.

Next time on The Reboot…

‘Collaboration’ needn’t be a dirty word — but it is. It’s really very dirty. But that’s not because of a lack of tools. Goodness, no. iChat, Adium, aMSN, Chatty-Watty (OK, that one I made up) all let us jabber at one another endlessly. But I’m not 13 years old and I don’t have the mental agility to maintain long messenger conversations any more.

No, the problem isn’t a lack of real-time collaboration software. The problem is an abundance of it, offering countless solutions and services across all conceivable OS platforms. The choice is, frankly, bewildering.

So what are these other collaboration tools, and which work best? Is there such a thing as the perfect solution? What do I use every day, and why do I think you should, too? Join us next time to find out!


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