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Paperless life and RISC OS

By Chris Williams. Published: 6th Dec 2004, 00:16:51 | Permalink | Printable

Wouldn't it be nice if everything was digital?

Are you buried in paper work?An idea that just won't go away is the concept of a 'paperless office'. As computers get smaller and faster and invade every corner of our society, it makes sense for us to attempt to, within reason, digitalise our work and integrate everything into the one tidy space that your computer inhabits - and thus, do away with scrambling through piles of mildly sorted paper and such material.

Many have noticed, though, that as technology has improved and computer use in the UK increases, the amount of information printed out has grown too as people are forced to juggle overwhelming amounts of data. Despite various ludicrous schemes in the past, such as giving policemen laptops to take statements and notes with and an attempt to open a 'paperless schools', there are times when being paperless is a boon.

For example, not everyone works by a desk and for people constantly on the move or working from more than one location, it's more practical to store all your paperwork and such on a computer. Rather than lug files and folders of notes around, all the information you need and more can be safely archived on your machine. With the advent of wireless Internet, you're never far from an access point to pick up and send email and other data. In order to pull this off, you'll need a laptop or some other portable computer, and one that you can rely on too.

Sadly, there's no native portable solution available at the moment for RISC OS, but users can always turn to running VirtualRiscPC on a suitable Windows PC laptop. One such user is John Ward, a councillor for Medway Council in Kent, who is on a mission to become the UK's first 'paperless councillor'.

Initially, John waited for a native RISC OS solution to appear, but after the loss of the Riscstation laptop project, he was forced to buy a 17" laptop from a RISC OS dealer and run VirtualRiscPC on it. John has since attended and survived a full council meeting, and group and planning meetings, with the aid of his laptop: the ability to view maps and plans at different scales at the same time helped him a great deal.

He adds: "I shall be able to do things that no other council member can do, such as immediately access any information - for example, our constitution or planning regulations - if the need should arise, and intend to make full show of this.

"Most of my work is done via OvationPro, Oregano 2, PDF, TechWriter for Word documents, ViewXLS for Excel sheets, plus Organizer for appointments, alerts and reminders of various kinds," says John. "I also have the Electoral Register in an Impact-3 database, with filters for each of our four polling districts."

The key to all of John's efforts to become paperless is to be able to react to any situation, and find the information he needs as and when. He carries all the notes, documents and maps that he needs in order to perform his duties.

John continues: "At a planning meeting earlier this week, where I was to speak on a controversial planning application, I received last-minute advice that meant I needed to change my speech. How much better that was done by editing the OvationPro file, rather than by crossing out and scribbling in the margins of a paper version. I was still making small changes as the item was being introduced to the meeting, fine-tuning my speech in light of what the principal planning officer was saying.

"Meanwhile, I had full-colour site plans (two views at different magnifications) also on the desktop, whereas the others had merely a black-and-white photocopy of the site map at normal size -- no zooming-in is possible on paper, except in a limited way with a magnifying glass."

In the future, John would like to use Artworks 2 to overlay maps and diagrams of local features and properties to build up a better picture of his local area, as required during meetings.

Being paperless has its downsides, of course. If your computer fails for whatever reason then you're somewhat stuck. However John says that he keeps all his work backed up at home, so any data loss can be eventually recovered from, and he argues that if you make the effort to read notes and documents before going into a meeting, then a hard disc failure is less likely to be as embarrassing. There's also the possibility of data theft, in terms of someone nicking your kit or breaking into your system via a network.

"I'm sure there are other potential problems, though at this early stage I am trying to be positive rather than look for difficulties," adds John. "I'm breaking new ground, at least here in Medway. I haven't heard of any similar situations elsewhere, but that doesn't mean there aren't other ground-breakers out there somewhere."

While John knows that you can't easily turn a local council electronic in a short amount of time, he's glad that others are beginning to notice his effort to become paperless and the role that RISC OS plays in this.

As a recycling advocate, John also wants to be paperless for environmental reasons too. In 2003, the UK consumed 12.5 million tonnes of paper, compared to 1993, when it consumed 10.6 million tonnes. In 2003, we also recycled just over 4 million tonnes of paper.

The advice from the CPI is: "The amount of paper used has certainly increased, and this is partly due to developments in technology which have made paper suitable for many more purposes than originally imagined. Paper plays a very important role in everyday life. It can be easy to take it for granted but, like all the world's resources, paper should never be used thoughtlessly or wastefully. Common sense should prevail: don't use more paper than you need for the purpose; whenever possible recycle your paper once you have finished using it."

The A5 running RISC OS on emulation
Is the future of RISC OS
in a portable form?
And a native solution?
So where exactly does RISC OS fit in all of this? The flexible, intuitive nature of the RISC OS desktop could certain aid users trying to navigate mountains of files. The other benefits of embedded RISC OS, such as immediate boot times and the range of friendly software already available for it, spring to mind. Although RISC OS is currently lacking a superior search system like the one Apple have been touting recently for their operating system, there's nothing stopping such a system from being developed. There's also smaller features built into RISC OS to help people find the files they want, such as Select's filer thumbnail mode that uses the ImageFileRender system to display thumbnails of any recognised files - from jpegs to Artworks files.

The small footprint, lightweight nature of RISC OS would suit its use in a PDA or tablet form, enabling a handheld (or slightly bigger) information device. Various processors that are powered by ARM cores, contain a myriad of useful I/O interfaces, such as LCD display and touchscreen support, which are ideal for this kind of product. John complained that his PC laptop is quite heavy and bulky, indicating that a more compact solution is preferable. There is, however, the trade off between the size of the unit and the size of the screen. While you want the display to be as large as possible to allow as much information to be seen at once, not everyone wants to lug around a 20" flat screen in their bag.

Another consideration is storage space. Whatever device is used, RISC OS must be able to support a compact form of high density storage that can deliver relatively fast data transfer speeds, whether it be, say, a small hard disc or Flash memory. The device should also possess wireless networking, for users who need to regularly connect to the Internet. In order to view the actual information, the device will possibly need to employ a PDF viewer (of which we have) and perhaps, a web browser (not a particularly hot topic at the moment) - or, a solution similar to Picsel's technology, which claims to render documents and images in a manner suitable for display on PDAs and such devices.

This could all very well be wishful thinking that amounts to absolutely nothing - just mere speculation waiting to be scolded for dreaming too much. But if Castle and AdvantageSix are serious in what they've been demonstrating to the platform (namely, the MiMagic kit and the A9 range), then the potential is there. Although, as Castle and AdvantageSix appear to be driven mostly by contract work from OEMs, we can only hope they're also considering such applications too.

Links


In praise of clutter - from the Economist
Confederation of paper industries, UK Using RISC OS in the real world? tell us

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Discussion

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I would like to see more use made of clockwork technology; a wind up PDA with less reliance on batteries.

 is a RISC OS UserGavinWraith on 6/12/04 11:25AM
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Interesting article. I remember writing an essay as part of my A level computing course on this subject.

That was about ten years ago and I remember saying that everything would soon be on computer with no need for anything on paper. Yes I was a little naive! (and cue older RISC OS users telling me they said similar 20 years ago ;0) )

As I write these comments I'm in work where theres litterally mountains of paper!

I think part of the problem is more cultural rather than technological. Based on the attitudes of my work colleagues I think quite a few people will never trust the computer not to lose their work so will always make print outs of their important work. (and yes they are all pc users!)

 is a RISC OS UserCol1 on 6/12/04 2:17PM
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A very interesting article!

Just yesterday on the Dutch news the very same subject was shortly discussed - with the implication many people's (and students') handwriting was failing...

As to paper: why do we still cut down trees when *hemp* is a perfect substitute? One can produce more paper from a field of hemp, than the same field of trees + one may grow a field of mature hemp several times a year.

Before Sibelius came out, many scorewriters and composers still put their pieces on paper, now many musicians overall use a laptop - the prodigy's latest album was written by liam on his laptop.

In short I think what John demonstrates here is quite a realistic forecast for many other applications as well. It may well be Castle's venture into the embedded world is well timed and we could see in a more & more PDA/palmtop/GSM dominated world RISC OS being the trusty sidekick to ARMs.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 6/12/04 2:59PM
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Working in the software industry, you'd expect a paperless office... but I've worked with very freakish engineers that would constantly print out all their code on to reams and reams of paper "because I prefer to read it that way". Some people just need a slap. I work quite happily with just a laptop and a single paper notebook. Why the notebook? Because in meetings, having rows of laptop backs pointed at each other breaks the physical structure of the room and the interaction up too much - I make paper notes and then copy them to the machine after the meeting. A tablet is almost a solution, especially the laptops which transform in to tablets, but handwriting recognition on such devices is still very poor (I mean being able to use truly free handwriting and having it understood). There's another flipside to this, too. I'm often in meetings that last half a day culminating in maybe a page of notes. How much power would my laptop have used in that time, doing very little other than accepting my doodling - the environmental hit of a recycled sheet of paper must be lower. Savings on paper waste could be made far more easily in other areas, though: we should at least have laws against the amount of utter crudmail that lands through letterboxes each morning!

 is a RISC OS Userimj on 6/12/04 3:16PM
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In reply to hEgelia:

Can totally agree with the hand writing issue. My own scrawl has got a lot worse since I started using my computer for almost everything. Written notes are almost unreadable! (thats my excuse and I'm sticking to it! ;)

 is a RISC OS UserCol1 on 6/12/04 3:17PM
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Well our department actually takes a completely opposite stance - print on demand. ie don't print once and store in a filing cabinet, instead bin it and print it out again when you need it.

The argument they make to support this stance is that they buy their paper from a company that plants 2 trees for every 1 they cut down. Thus by using more paper, more trees actually exist!!

 is a RISC OS UserWalks on 6/12/04 4:05PM
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I almost never print anything, although sometimes having a printout is useful when coding as the screen is never big enough. I do have 100s of books and magazines though (need a break from looking at a screen all day), but don't bother with newspapers. The arrival of the tablet PC (or NewsPad as we prefer) and software to allow (scanned) documents to act like paper, be able to annotate them easily for example should help.

Wonder what it would cost have to Picsel's work ported to RISC OS, and if that would be a good idea. PDF files are much more common than MS files now it seems, what open formats exist for dtp, spreadsheets, presentations exist? Open Office?

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 6/12/04 4:34PM
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Walks: The type of skinny telephone pole trees crammed into dark, gloomy conifer plantations?

Paper will be with us for a long time. Documents on paper are easier to browse through and make notes on, even without the fact that they are easier to read anyway. Having a printout of commonly referred ones is a lot easier than trying to juggle them around on a screen along with the rest of my work.

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 7/12/04 10:27AM
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Walks: oh dear. Small minded management, I presume. I guess they also think they're creating jobs, too. Not to mention pollution from production/transport, etc, etc.

Whilst it's clearly great that a paper manfacturer is planting plenty of trees, that hardly makes them unique, but it would be a lot better if the paper wasn't used in the first place.

SimonC: Pine (Pineus Radiata) plantations in New Zealand are actually quite attactive, and forestry is NZ's second biggest export - sadly, much of it to Korea as mulch. Which is a shame, since it makes much better furniture (and Xmas trees) than the Scandinavian pine seen in the UK.

 is a RISC OS Usermrchocky on 7/12/04 10:46AM
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The problem I face with paper vs screen is that paper (ref books) can be spread around whilst the program I'm working on is on screen. So this boils down to screen size or lack of. Similarily when examing code it is much easier to skip over pages than scroll down several thousand lines. The second problem depends on what editor you're using, so one up for Zap+RISCOS on that but a big thumbs down for Brio-Javascript on my PC at work !

I think the biggest problem is still an inadequate electronic book format. It's no so much the information, which is all there, it's how you browse it.

Walks, I think the people at your work come from the planet stupid. I've never heard such a ridiculous argument for using paper. Remind them a) immature trees are net carbon dioxide contributors b) mature trees are net carbon dioxide absorbers (the good guys) which we chop down to make paper ! c) closely planted pine is invariably re-planted which has an active canopy only, with 100ft or more dense dark dead forest floor. d) consuming less paper will save them money. e) consuming anything excessively is always bad news (except beer ;-) )........ok beer as well.

 is a RISC OS Usermripley on 7/12/04 3:22PM
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Lol I don't know how much pollution it caused in its making but I have a 20" screen which can do a lovely 1600x1200. This means I can line up plenty of coding windows and still see them without all the horrible blurryness that means you have to use a CRT at a lower res :)

 is a RISC OS Userjohn on 9/12/04 1:15AM
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mripley:"Similarily when examing code it is mucht easier to skip over pages than scroll down several thousand lines."

I did this when I started to program, but not any more, and never on RISC OS. In StrongEd (but you can use ZAP to) I use ^G to jump to the definition of a function and ^R to return again. This was the main reason I stopped using listings.

Peter

 is a RISC OS UserPeter on 9/12/04 11:19AM
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[link] Growing trees absorb CO2, obviously, since they convert it into wood. But what happens to the carbon in the paper you're throwing away? If it's burnt or decays you're back to square 0, before you even start to count the considerable energy used to cut down the trees, move them to the paper mill, convert them to paper, move the paper to you. If it's recycled that's still an enormous amount of energy. I suggest writing a virus to break all the printer drivers on the network is the simplest way to stop the problem.

What we really need is reflecting screens that consume energy only when they change built into desks and walls.

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 9/12/04 4:08PM
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I agree, it must be years since I printed out a listing either at home or at work. Even using emacs at work,I don't do it, even though I find the amount I can get on a screen is limited with 1280x1024 and emacs - the emacs split screen mode comes in useful though, allowing two files to be seen at the same time. At home with my much better resolution on the Iyonix and Zap, I routinely have several windows open at once. All you need is a decent quality monitor (I use a CRT rather than LCD since you get more resolution for the money) and you can get an awful lot of text on the screen. Some PC users of my acquaintance have commented ngatively about the size of the text on my 19" monitor, being much smaller than what they are used to. But they reckon without RISC OS anti-aliasing technology, which makes such small text easily readable even to a long-sighted reader like me. I have often had more difficulty reading much larger test on a Windows box, even with a similar monitor.

Martin

 is a RISC OS Usermrtd on 10/12/04 9:12AM
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