Column: the paper mountain

Loose Wire — Conquer That Paper Mountain: It’s time to get organized; Here’s some software to help you scan and locate photos and documents; But perhaps you shouldn’t ditch the filing cabinet just yet

By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I’m a little suspicious of programs that, adorned with images of bits of paper and photos disappearing into a smiling computer monitor, promise to give order to the junk that is my life. The paperless office never happened — we still make printouts because it’s so easy — and while everyone seems to be photographing digitally these days, that doesn’t sort out our cupboards full of snaps. And even if this stuff does find its way onto your computer, chances are it’s all over the place, in subfolders with obscure names. A sort of digital chaos, really.

I don’t promise an end to all that. And the programs I’m about to tout are not really a new idea, but they both do a better job than their predecessors of helping you to get organized, whether you’re trying to sift through documents already on your computer, or get a handle on your photos.

First off, Scansoft’s PaperPort (deluxe version, $100 from www.scansoft.com/paperport/). Into its ninth version, it’s a lot more sophisticated than its forbears. PaperPort and its competitors allow you to scan documents into the computer, and then let you organize and view those documents into folders of your choosing. You can then convert them to digital text, a process called OCR or Optical Character Recognition, which in turn allows you to move chunks of the original document into a word-processing file. In theory it’s a great way to get rid of paper clutter on your desk, helping you to find those documents — or parts of them — easily, or to convert them to something you can use in your spreadsheet, document or whatever. In practice, it’s too much of a fiddle. Most folk find it easier to locate the hard copy of a document (behind the bookcase, next to the dead cockroach) than the soft one (What name did I give it? What keyword should I use to find it?), so they just buy another filing cabinet.

PaperPort hasn’t resolved the riddle of why we can always locate something under a messy pile of papers, but never after we’ve cleaned up, but it’s a few steps closer to making it easier to handle documents on your PC. First, you can scan them in a format called PDF, short for Adobe’s Portable Document Format, a widely used standard for viewing documents. By working within this standard — rather than PaperPort’s proprietary standard — everything you scan in PaperPort can be accessed and handled by other programs, or by folk who don’t use PaperPort. Common sense, I know, and they’ve got there at last. Another common-sense feature is a search function that allows you to search through an index of documents, whatever format they’re in, within PaperPort.

For a long time I’ve used PaperMaster, now owned by J2Global, the Internet-faxing company, which promises to have an updated version available later this year. PaperMaster does pretty much what PaperPort does, but it’s been doing it a lot longer and it actually looks like a filing cabinet, which I find reassuring. But it doesn’t work well with Windows XP, and is looking somewhat dated. Most importantly, it won’t save your scans in a file format recognized by anyone else on this planet. What’s more, it sometimes loses whole drawers of documents, which kind of defeats the object of the exercise.

So check out PaperPort. It will handle photos too, but if you’ve got a lot of them, I’d suggest Adobe’s new Photoshop Album ($50 from www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum/). Album is elbowing for space among a lot of similar products vying for the burgeoning home-photo market, but it has features and a very intuitive interface that I suspect will put it ahead of the pack.

Basically, it can collate pictures from more or less any source — scanning, digital images on your hard drive, on a digital camera, on a CD-ROM — and give you the tools to touch them up, label them, order them around and generally beat them into submission. You can create the usual things with them — albums, video disks, printouts, slide shows and whatnot — all in as tasteful a way as you can expect from a homespun photo album. I particularly liked the way you could tag photos more than once so, say, a picture of your Uncle Charlie doing the gardening in his pantomime costume could be categorized both under Family and Environmental Pollution Hazard. All in all, a smart program, and not badly priced.

Gripes? They’re a bit stingy on the tools they provide to touch up photos, so all the facial blemishes of my adolescent years are still there if you look closely.

These programs won’t change our lives. They may only make a dent in a filing cabinet and photo drawer. But they’re good enough for what they try to do, which is to lend a little order to our pre-paperless lives.

25. May 2003 by jeremy
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