It Ain’t Easy Being Green

It’s 6 a.m. I just finished checking for business news and for today’s weather. I hear a car moving slowly outside, so I close my laptop as I recognize the familiar “plop.” My daily Washington Post has just arrived. I immediately toss out (oops, make that recycle) the classifieds and sports sections, stuff the plastic bag into my over-stuffed plastic bag holder, and sit down to enjoy what’s left of the Post. I can’t respond to classified ads during my commute, and I don’t have time at work. Come the end of my workday, anything I was interested in is probably gone. So I enjoy my select pieces of the paper on my bus-Metro commute. When I leave the station, I toss the rest of the paper into an overflowing recycling bin. Processes like these are repeated all over the world.

The Pulp and Paper Products Council reported recently that more than 900,000 tons of newsprint were produced in June. In the U.S., 55 million newspapers are sold each day. That’s a lot of trees to cut down, process, print, and deliver, with lots of fossil fuels consumed in the process. What is the alternative—move everything to the web? Broadband isn’t always available (certainly on the DC Metro), so this would limit content access.

Web delivery isn’t completely eco-friendly either. Estimates of our total national energy bill devoted to information technology range up to 14%. Unlike your laptop or refrigerator, web servers must run continuously.

Is the green alternative simply Acrobat PDF and email? I notice that many of my professional magazines are touting a new “more convenient” digital edition, but these editions often leave much to be desired. A home energy magazine I enjoy digitally is a nicely linked 20MB version of the print edition. I can’t load or read that on my PDA. Other digital magazines I receive offer whole-magazine or ZIP-compressed Acrobat versions of columns and articles (with inscrutable numeric codes for each download). Getting what you want is a multistep process that requires you to download, extract, rename, and load files to a portable device—if they’ll fit, since each is essentially a full-color glossy version of the print edition. PDF is a great digital alternative, but most publishers haven’t figured out a clean delivery model, and the PDF editions are static.

Other formats and ebook viewers offer their own advantages. Examples include Amazon’s innovative, new Kindle ebook reader, with more than 90,000 titles available. Texterity’s digital editions preserve digital rights with enhanced readability, including viewing on the iPhone. Everyone from publishers to e-doc technology providers and sellers sense an opportunity here, and for many a common thread is the use of XML: Create the content once, and deliver in many alternative ways.

I asked Adobe’s Luis Polanco, Adobe AIR senior product manager, and others for their insights into green document strategies, including how to fix the “newspaper problem.” I was surprised at the results. Polanco described an eBay-branded Adobe AIR application at the DEMO 07 technology conference. This application lets you download watched auction items, bid on them offline, and upload your bids when you are connected again. This is analogous to what I might do with classified ads on the Metro, were the offline/online ability available.

Peter Spielvogel, director of product marketing at Olive Software, told me about his firm’s approach to online digital newspaper delivery of newspapers and magazines based on XML. This approach delivers appropriately faithful versions of print editions to common web browsers as well as to portable devices like Blackberries and iPhones, offline for cached content. John Kreisa, product marketing at Mark Logic, believes the greening of documents is no fad and says Mark Logic products provide unique opportunities to customize and find what’s needed. Kreisa described how U.S. Army soldiers in Iraq can now specify custom battle books (think IED defenses) using TRADOC, based on Mark Logic technology. There’s no more ripping out tons of paper pages from manuals they don’t need, must ship, and then destroy.

As with Ireland, there are 40 shades of green, and—to paraphrase Kermit—some are easier than others. Still, the model of newsprint delivered in plastic bags is probably not sustainable, and if something can’t continue, it won’t. How green are your documents?