Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Ricoh Builds a Tablet Meant to Get Some Paper Out of Your Work Life

One of the oldest recurring ideas in the tech industry has been that of the paperless office. Some years back I traced the etymology of the phrase “paperless office” to a 1975-vintage Businessweek cover story. Revisiting the topic, I dug up the old story from the archives, scanned it, and republished it on the Web.

Long expected, the paperless office has never arrived. Paper still permeates almost as much of the life of the 21st century office worker as it did the 20th century office worker. The average American office worker consumed 143 pounds of paper in 1999, according to RISI, a research firm that tracks the forest-products industry, and as of 2009, that figure had declined only a little to 106 pounds. Yes, we’re printing and copying and faxing less, but we’re also still filling out a lot of paper forms by hand that should have probably been digitized a long time ago. Forms and invoices and contracts and all kinds of paper documents are expensive not only to produce, but to handle.

Always eager to shave down operational costs and bolster their green bona fides, companies in practically every industry have looked for ways to discourage printing and eliminate paper in standard work flows, though it often finds a way to creep back in. Paper is light, portable, and you can mark it with a pen.

But what if you could do the same things with a digital document? Ricoh, the Japanese office equipment concern known for its copiers, fax machines and other things that at times feel like holdovers from the last century, demonstrated to me a product it thinks will give office workers the best of both worlds.

Ricoh calls it the eWriter Solution. Central to it is a tablet called eQuill that’s built around the same E Ink display found in Amazon’s Kindle, but with some important enhancements. First, it turns pages a lot faster. Say you’re working with a 50-page contract and need to flip quickly to page 43. In the demos I saw, you can flip pages a great deal faster than on a Kindle.

Second–and this is the big one–you can write on the digital document directly on the screen using a stylus, making it easy to sign that contract, write comments on the parts that need changing, or draw a smiley face on it. It acts just like paper, except you can’t fold it up into a paper airplane. It weighs about a pound, so you can easily walk around with it, much like a clipboard.

One thing the eQuill won’t do is browse the Web or check your email. Ricoh has designed the tablet for a single focus, moving documents from one person to the next. It’s backed by a cloud-based service that forms the backbone of a system customized to a customer company’s processes.

Kurt Peirsol, Chief Technology Officer of Ricoh EWS, a new Ricoh business unit based in San Jose, Calif., demonstrated a working prototype of the eQuill with the AllThingsD cameras rolling. We talked about some of the use cases, which include medical workers and doctors, who always seem to have clipboards at hand.

Paul Ahrens, the unit’s general manager, told me that Ricoh sees the medical industry as low-hanging fruit. Doctors and other medical workers were among the few that embraced the old convertible notebooks–we knew them then as tablet PCs–in any reasonable numbers. They may be ready to try something new, he says. Watch the video of Ricoh’s demonstration and decide for yourself.

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— David Pogue on why he’s joining Yahoo