Magazine article The Futurist

The Active Document: Making Pages Smarter

Magazine article The Futurist

The Active Document: Making Pages Smarter

Article excerpt

One of the strengths of paper pages is that, if the paper stock is chemically correct, they can last for hundreds of years unchanged. One of the weaknesses of paper pages is that, while our information needs vary from person to person, our pages don't change.

But imagine a page that changes depending on who is reading it, delivering the appropriate information to each person. Imagine working on a report that can correct your mistakes and send itself via computer to the people who are on a list to review it. Imagine a document that updates itself -- text and graphics -- as the information it is communicating is al ered.

Such technology builds upon the current generation of electronic publishing software, which revolutionized information processing by enabling users to create and revise text and add photographs, illustrations, charts, tables, etc. Now we're seeing the beginning of a second revolution -- in which computer software improves the quality of what doesn't show up on the page.

Pages generally display information in text and graphic form. But there's more to pages than what they show, including the earlier drafts, the identities of the people who approved them or have the authorization to modify them or see them, the sources of the information on the page, and what's supposed to happen next in the creation-revision-review-distribution process.

With "intelligent" software technology, pages will carry all this information with them. "Active documents" such as these will have the intelligence to access information, evaluate it, and act on it. In fact, documents can become so intelligent that they can correct their authors.

There Will Always Be Pages --

But Not Necessarily Paper

The page is and will continue to be our most highly evolved way of giving and getting access to information. While in some situations we're seeing paper-less pages increasing in importance (the computer page is a primary example), page-less communication will remain relatively rare.

The secret of the success of the page-based model is that page-based documents are structured in visible and expected ways. For example, THE FUTURIST is structured into different sections. Each section has a title, text, subheads, and perhaps some bulleted lists. Readers navigate the magazine by means of these structures.

The structure of a page-based document is made visible by cues such as the variations in the typeface and sometimes the position on the page (for example, article titles are usually -- but not always -- at the top of the page).

Because page-based documents have a structure, they can provide formal navigational guides such as a table of contents, index, list of illustrations, etc. You can also turn the pages and easily skip by those you don't want to look at.

It is the versatility of page-based documents in showing information and giving us access to it that ensures its continuing dominance -- whether on paper or not.

The Invisible Context

A page, by itself, lacks context. Computer technology in the future is going to help us navigate not just the page but its invisible context as well.

Think of what's printed on a page as a flat, two-dimensional surface. A page's invisible "depth" consists of information such as where the information came from, what the information is related to (e.g., paragraph "A" describes a summer course in the history department), the changes that have been made since the page was first prepared, by whom and when, and who is authorized to read it.

It can be extremely useful for a document to be able to carry this sort of information with it. But information in general is only useful insofar as it is the basis of action. The same is true for this contextual information.

The major breakthrough in page technology in the 1990s will be the ability of documents to carry embedded contextual information and -- more importantly -- to act on that information. …

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