Thursday, December 23, 2004

Taking the Paper Out of Paperwork

With the recent additions to our family, I find myself filling out lots of forms. Along the way, I've found what may be for me the killer app for the Tablet PC.

I've been a fan of the "paperless office" idea since, well, since it was popular. Email and the web have replaced a lot of formerly paper-bound processes, but forms are another story. Even though all of the various forms from my insurance company are available as PDF's, you've still had to print them out, fill them out, sign them, and fax them somewhere. But with a TabletPC, you can skip the paper step altogether. This is convenient when you're in the office, but absolutely necessary when you're somewhere without a printer or a fax machine, like a hospital waiting room.

When the twins were born, I sent an email to the HR person at my company requesting the appropriate insurance forms. She replied, attaching them as PDF files. I opened them in Acrobat, printed them to a Journal file, and filled them out and signed them using the tablet's Ink function. At that point I could have created PDF versions of the signed forms and emailed them back, but since my company has a VPN that lets me connect to the office network from anywhere, I logged in and sent the signed versions to the printer in the HR department. No paper, no faxing, done in five minutes, and all wirelessly. Nice!

Of course I don't fill out enough forms every day to justify the cost of a Tablet PC, but my wife sure does. She's an architect and a builder. When she's working on-site on a project, she exchanges faxes with suppliers, subcontratcors, government agencies, and clients every day. Many of these documents require signatures, so she's been stuck in the fax-sign-fax routine, requiring her to run a temporary phone line to the job site just for faxes. With a tablet, she'll be able to radically simplify the process, sponging off of a neighbor's open wireless network (trust me, there's at least one on every street) and saving time and money. I predict that the Tablet PC will join the white pickup and the 7-11 Super Big Gulp as standard issue gear for builders.