Photography: Lee Bennett
Tech types have been predicting the rise of the paperless office for years. When you can pack more information into the average laptop’s hard drive than you can squeeze into a room full of filing cabinets and when you can send documents backwards and forwards without ever licking an envelope, who needs to chop down trees and staple pages? Computer power will soon mark the end of ink and pulp, we’ve been promised… again and again. But could we see the end of the computer first? Just as the ability to squeeze increasing flexibility into laptops and now netbooks has reduced demand for desktops, could the growth of mobile phone technology mean the rise of the computerless company too?
Judging by sheer computing power alone, desktops should be safe. A typical Dell Inspiron desktop comes with a range of processors from Intel Celerons to Core 2 Quads, 8GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage space, which certainly sounds impressive enough.
The iPhone is a Weakling
In comparison, even the latest iPhone 3GS looks like a seven-stone weakling. But for most users, even Dell’s most basic model is probably overkill. If all you’re planning to do is create spreadsheets, write emails and prepare documents, the lowest-end processor would be more than sufficient. And you’re only going to fill a terabyte of storage if you’re busy skipping round the corporate firewall to build your movie collection. Of course, you still have to pay for all of that extra power whether you use it or not.
That might explain why buyers are migrating to smaller, cheaper machines that pack a weaker punch but are still strong enough to do the job. According to iSuppli, a technology firm, sales of desktop PCs fell 18 percent in 2008. Sales of notebooks rose 12 percent in the same period.
But while even the smartest of smart phones might have relatively small brains, the iPhone didn’t revolutionize the mobile market with its muscle power. It was its interface that changed the way we compute. By making surfing the Web comfortable and easy, the iPhone’s true power doesn’t lie under its touchscreen but in the cloud. Who cares how much storage space you have when everything you need is available from one of the many online storage centers available – or even Google’s rumored GDrive? Does it matter if your iPhone only displays the last 50 messages when you can still log into Gmail and read everything you’ve received and sent over the last three years? And do you really need a program folder stuffed with bloatware when you can buy almost all of the programs? you need for just a handful of bucks – or even access the same functionalities free online
That became easier recently with the release for the iPhone first of QuickOffice and then of DataViz’s DocumentsToGo. Both were previously available for the Blackberry, Android and Palm but the iPhone’s bigger screen means that creating documents and spreadsheets is now more comfortable than ever. Although neither program offers the complete range of editing options available in Microsoft’s full-size Office suites – you can’t add comments, for example, or images to Word-type files — they both provide the most popular features used by most office workers. The completed documents can either be synced directly to a computer or – for non-computer types — emailed to a partner or client.
Can You Work without a Keyboard?
Best of all, the devices themselves fit in your pocket, weigh next to nothing and can be used and taken anywhere. You can now do your work while lying on the sofa or even squashed into economy class… with a food tray on your folding table. And it’s always with you. When was the last time you left home without your mobile?
Combine those basic office programs packed into a handheld device with Internet accessibility, email and the giant range of note-taking, organization and even entertainment apps, and it quickly becomes clear that there’s little a smartphone can’t do that your laptop can, except give you shoulder-ache.
But clearly, there are limitations. The iPhone still has no external keyboard, which means lots of tricky thumb-typing, and even the real buttons on a Blackberry or Windows Mobile device can feel pretty fiddly when you’re preparing a long report. Creative types who work with graphics might also find working from a mobile a challenge too far. The Zeptopad app does allow vector drawing – and even P2P sharing – while Color Expert helps artists and graphic designers capture inspiring colors as they see them. Neither though offers anything like the flexibility designers need in Photoshop let alone a convenient, roomy place to store large format images. Attempting to put Adobe’s chief graphic product on the iPhone gives you something like this:
So while the rise of the personal computer was supposed to have done away with paper, in practice, things didn’t quite work out that way. Bored cubicle-dwellers are still able to three-point paper balls down the corridor. The Amazon is still being cleared to fill filing cabinets. And while screens sit on every office desktop, they’re often surrounded by piles of letters, documents and paper reports. The same is likely to remain true for the prospects of a computerless company. Mobile devices might be growing increasingly smart and incredibly flexible. They might now be able to offer many of the same functions and at the same speed that you could have found on a full-size computer just a few years ago. And their access to the cloud means that that potential is now limitless. But you wouldn’t want to use them all the time.
While you could now do all of your (non-graphic) work without ever touching a real keyboard, in practice, you probably won’t want to. Your smartphone won’t replace the desktop but it will probably sit on the desk, next to the laptop… and on top of your printed report.