The Document of the future

Today I handed in the report for the In-Company Project module of the Vlerick MBA I am currently attending. It has 75 pages and is full of high quality content – obviously. While the project was a lot of fun and we did a lot of great work, I found that the written form of the report is not best suited to contain all the information we wanted to convey through our work. This got me thinking – if I were to choose the form in which I would hand in the results of my consulting work – what would it be?

The document form has been around for quite a while and I believe it is the most popular form of expressing thoughts – cumulatively. The nations  of old used it to write their laws on or to capture stories for next generations. Today the document is the most important object in the modern office. Whether it is in marketing, strategy, IT or any other function – the daily life at work spins around documents. With the advent of the personal computer – the document reached its climax. Anyone anywhere can write one and share it with anyone else. That advantage of the form is clear – it is the simplest to write, print and hand out to other people. Well it was the simplest until recently. While the paper document has had its run, I believe it is on the verge of beginning to decline. The rise of a new era of computing is going to make the document form of information obsolete and while it may not happen over night – it will happen.

So what is the new form? The tablet computer will become the main form of computing over the next few years. It is simple, intuitive and allows for a variety of interfaces towards information. The new form of sharing information and writing reports will be the App. The market for Apps has grown since the launch of the Apple App Store exponentially and has been supported by the launch of even more App stores all over the high tech industry. Whether it is the Android Market, the Amazon stores – apps are becoming a medium on their own. But why would they replace the document? Well first of all the document format is based on the form of paper. That form is obsolete – we can see that already in the print industry. The app enables one to create a great user interface for data and to take into account the nature of the information we are trying to convey. That maybe an interactive chart, a video, a specific user interface and also written text. This allows the user to construct a very specific experience for the target audience that is not limited to pages  and pages of text – it may be a presentation, a spreadsheet and written text all together mixed and presented in a custom way. 

But the app is not new. We have applications as long as we had the personal computer, so why now? Most people even today print emails and documents they receive – supposedly it is more convenient for them to consume information in that way and so why should they change? The document has a standard format – Mircosoft's Word or Adobe's PDF and that makes it attractive for interoperability. But with the advances of both XML and touchscreen devices I believe the App has matured. Developing for today's tablets is much easier than it was for the first PC's and the touch interface allows one to interact with presented information in a much more intimate way. Just as the PC has made the document the center of information sharing – so will the tablet computer allow the app to become the mainstream form of sharing information. 

Why hasn't it happened yet? The tablet is rather new – the iPad is 18 month old and the Apple App Store is 4 years old. There is no common standard – Apple has its own Apps, Google as well and so it is difficult to breakthrough the hegemony of the Doc, PPT and XLS. And while the App has matured – not so for the tools for creating them. Developing an App is still something developer conferences are focusing on and hasn't yet become mainstream. But I believe the new form will come – the closest thing I see to this is the web. My hotel reservation is no longer an A4 paper but an online app where I booked, my bank account statements are an app where I can browse and interact with the information in a useful way and printed maps – sorry dead to me. But the user interface of the web, even with all the amazing things Google, Apple, Microsoft and others have done with modern AJAX web apps – the native experience is still the best. Whether the web app of the native app will become the standard – I do not know – but both ways work for me.