Dr Steve Hoover, the vice president of Xerox's Xerox Research Center Webster, was making a business case for reusable paper at Gartner's ITexpo conference in the US this week, demonstrating a technology that could allow one sheet of paper to be reused hundreds of times.
Paper? Who uses paper anymore?
Not the younger workers that Tim Philpott sees coming into his company. He is a director of finance who is also in charge of IT spending at a national retailer that he asked not be named.
"I see people coming up in the organization that have never touched paper -- they don't have any desire to touch paper," said Philpott, who was at the presentation. "I think it's a cultural thing."
That "paperless" rumor's been making the rounds since the dawn of e-mail ubiquity at the end of the last century. But e-mail too may on the short-list of I-remember-that innovations.
Richard Friedrich, director of open innovation at HP Labs, says his children do not use e-mail anymore.
"It's all about instant messaging, text messaging" or posting a note on MySpace, said Friedrich.
"What's going to happen when those individuals come into the enterprise and we put them at a desk where they get to launch Microsoft Outlook -- how are they going to react to that?" said Friedrich.
Many of the people attending the Gartner ITexpo are middle-aged lions and managers with children of their own. They know all too well that they're in a fast-moving current of new attitudes about tech.
It's one reason why Guido Jouret, Cisco Systems vice president and CTO, talked about the steps his company is taking to try to bring in new ideas.
Cisco last year created a contest called I-Prize, which incorporates collaboration technologies, such as wikis, that first found broad adoption with the young. Some 2,300 people from 104 different countries have entered the I-Prize contest. The winner gets a US$250,000 signing bonus and may get a US$10 million investment over three years from Cisco.
And what was the major requirement for entering Cisco's contest? You had to be at least 18 years old.
Remember that Shawn Fanning, who created the Napster peer-to-peer file-sharing service, was about 18 years old when he did so in 1998.
One conference wag here said (privately at lunch to this reporter) that what Cisco was doing is trying to buy a good start-up before it becomes a start-up. Be that as it may, Cisco will announce its overall winner next week, said Jouret.
But let's give paper its due before the younger generation forces broad adoption of text messaging.
This reusable paper remains in Xerox's lab for now, but the company's goal is to produce paper that can be reused hundreds of times at a cost no more than two to three times that of regular paper, said Hoover.
Hoover demonstrated to the audience the concept, using a time-honored concept still known to kids as show and tell.
Hoover used an ultraviolet LED, configured to look like a pen, to write on a piece of paper. The paper reacts in much the same way a specially coated eyeglass lens can be made to darken when exposed to sunlight. When the paper is heated (or, in the case of the demo, put on a hot plate on Gartner's stage), the writing is cleared. In the office, a working "clearance" system might be no different than a normal printer and copier.
For those that do print documents, about 75 per cent are thrown out within a week and 50 per cent within a day, Hoover said. That has an environmental impact, because "the energy to produce a sheet of paper is about 20 times the energy to print on it," said Hoover.