01 June 2009

How Did We Get Here? Five Technologies that led to electronic records

The RIM world still wrestles with the progression of paper records into electronic records, as well as the integration of the two. Paper or plastic? Isolated or federated? Local or remote? The choices are endless. To successfully address these issues, it helps to know the back-story. How did we get here from there?

Until the mid-1980s, almost all business records were physical, that is, the medium that held the information was made up of atoms. Most of that was paper, which, by today's standard, is an often-inefficient form for storage. The rest was mostly microform – pretty much the same idea, but denser. Paper had advantages. Reading required no power source, if there was a nearby window. And file systems were straightforward. It’s not surprising that records management borrowed heavily from Library Science. To this day, most degrees in records management are conferred by schools of Library Science.

Toward the end of the 1980s, five technological advances laid the grounds for the sea change we see today.

1. Digital scanning. Paper-image copiers of the 1960s-1980s used xerography, a photographic process. This is in contrast to digital scanning, where each small patch, of a sheet of paper, that is, a bit of information, is identified as either black or white. This sequence of identities passed through a wire for either storage or remote reconstruction as a bit-mapped image. The first mass application of digital scanning was for facsimile (fax) machines.

2. Dense, low-cost digital storage. On the heels of the fax boom came optical disk storage. This used the newly popularized and finally affordable laser to burn laminated disks with the sequence of white/black bits coming from the scanner. When the technology raised its capacity and lowered its costs, digital storage of images became practical. Users, effectively, faxed images to themselves and stored them for later use.

3. Computer power. The bits of information that a scanner produces need control and direction, meaning they had to pass through a computer. In the mid-80s, personal computers had limited processing power, and mainframe processing was expensive. As the decade waned, however, prices for personal computers with Intel’s 80286 microprocessor lowered, and for the first time, the processing power to handle images was widely deployed.

4. Image displays. Before the mid-80s, computer monitors generally showed only plain, alphanumeric characters. Any variations were indicated by markup language. The second half of the decade witnessed the release of increasingly sophisticated monitors that could display bit-mapped images as well as characters.

5. Laser printers. Early printers used wires to print dots in a matrix, with a resolution too low for most graphical applications. Character printers of the time essentially automated the capabilities of a typewriter. By contrast, in a laser printer, the image is organized by a digital sequence such as that which makes up a digital image. The first, mass-produced laser printer arrived in 1984, so the technology was ready when the other components came together.

These five technologies made possible electronic records, the boon and bane of today’s records managers.

The evolution of the application of these five technologies is another story, the subject for a future post.

1 comment:

  1. I would suggest two other key changes. First, the Internet (although, arguably, one could posit email ahead of the Internet since intra-company email whetted the appetite for inter-company email). Once documents / objects could be exchanged electronically, the sea changed.

    Second: the productivity suite / office software. Disintermediation is what really happened here. Once each user was capable of creating and storing their own records, the wheels came off. Where you once had a secretary or a word processing pool that would create documents (and file copies), you now had the anarchy of the user.

    Velocity and productivity radically changed.