Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    A new generation of page scanners helps small businesses combat paper overload

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #324  January 9, 1996 High Tech Office  column

    One of the bits of received wisdom of the past high-tech decade or so is that "digital is good." Data saved in digital form can be manipulated in a variety of ways, is easily stored, and instantly retrieved. Digitized text, for example, can be transmitted around the world cheaply as e-mail, then enhanced with digital fonts and graphics to produce an attractive (and still digital) electronic document.

    But we seem addicted to using those same tools to produce ever-growing mountains of paper documents, more and more often outputting these digital documents through use of printers and fax machines. The result is that a huge amount of office work consists of managing paper--filing correspondence and reports, and trying to locate them again later.

    Some large enterprises have made a start at converting their huge backlog of paper documents to digital form: VanCity, for instance, committed itself a few years ago to switching over to optical storage, greatly reducing the space needed to store what used to be rooms full of files by using storage medium that should last for centuries.

    Up to now, these solutions have been impractical for small businesses: the cost of the hardware needed to scan paper documents has simply been too high to justify. Over the past year or so, however, a new generation of page scanners looking something like an overgrown roll of Saran Wrap, along with software aimed at small offices, has made it increasingly practical for offices to try to tame the paper monster at a cost of $500 or so.

    These hardware solutions, such as the WinFax Scanner, from Ontario's Delrina (about $450), look at documents a page at a time. To scan pages from a book, you'd have to photocopy them first. You can scan a page, as a graphic, into any Windows document that supports the popular TWAIN scanning standard.

    Software lets you combine it with your computer's printer as a stand-in for a photocopier. Perhaps more useful, printing to a computer's fax modem lets you send the document as a fax, thereby getting around the major drawback of fax modems, which is that they can only send pages that are already digital. All hardware of this generation is designed to easily plug into your PC's parallel or serial ports, making for easy setup and installation.

    In addition, the various hardware products all come with one or another piece of optical character recognition (OCR) software. While scanners, like fax machines, look at your printed page as a picture, OCR tries to read the text on the page, converting it from a digitized graphic to digital text. This results in a tremendous saving in storage space: a picture of a page might take 400 kilobytes of space, but a text file of the text on the page might require only eight kb or so.

    More importantly, the digital text can be used directly in the word processor or desktop-publishing program of your choice, letting you edit, cut and paste, or manipulate the text as you would with any other document on computer.

    OCR software isn't perfect--it will sometimes confuse letter combinations such as "rn" for "m," especially if the original is something like blurry newsprint. Despite these limitations, it can be surprisingly accurate. The software can be set to produce a document for your choice of word processor, and even to load the page right into your word processor, allowing a fast spell-check to catch most errors.

    A new generation of software builds on these page scanners and OCR software to become part of a small business solution. Document-management software enables users to attach key words to documents, or even to index the text, allowing easy filing and searching. Typically, this software can work with graphics such as scanned pages or faxes, as well as with word-processing files. In some cases, these products are bundled directly with page scanners such as UMax's PageOffice or Visioneer Paperport VX. In other cases, such as Caere's PageKeeper (about $200), they are sold as a separate product.

    Businesses looking for a way to combat paper overload may find this new generation of hardware and software an affordable and increasingly attractive solution. Coming up: peeks at new ways to create and use electronic documents, and to create your own office-wide Web.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan