At ETech last week, Kevin Lynch from Adobe talked about some sustainability-related things they're working on. The most important-sounding one was actually just briefly mentioned: Acrobat Connect, a web-conferencing tool. I haven't used it, and he didn't demo it, but good online collaboration tools are one of the most important things software people can make for sustainability, because they enable telecommuting and telepresence. When people think of solving the transportation problems, they automatically think of electric cars, but a far better solution is telecommuting. Telecommuting uses less energy and fewer resources than the best EV or even the best bus or train; plus there's less congestion, less need for new roads, and it can replace airline travel as well as cars.
There are loads of online collaboration tools out there, but none of them is really ready for prime time (except perhaps the hyper-expensive virtual meeting rooms from Cisco), since they all seem to limit as much as they enable. Perhaps Acrobat Connect is going to be a contender. A quick look at its website showed that it seems to be a well-featured cross-platform virtual program in your browser that doesn't require additional software installation, and that can be used by monthly subscription. (Too bad it can't be paid for on a per-use basis.)
Lynch also showed some ideas Adobe has had for making its publishing tools help graphic designers be more sustainable in their work, by perhaps having color palettes show you the toxicity of inks in the colors you choose (or perhaps letting you limit your color selections to those that can be made with certain eco-friendly inks), or have the Print dialog box show you the number of trees cut down for the print run, etc. (Perhaps like the program GreenPrint, which reformats web pages or other documents to slice out ads, unwanted headers, and such, to use less paper in printing--it tells you how many trees you have saved by using it.) None of the ideas mentioned were developed at all, but it would be great to see them pursue something in that vein. At first glance it seems the biggest impact might be in a tool that helps packaging designers lay out cuttings on stock paper sizes, because cutting irregular shapes often wastes so much paper that could be saved simply by arranging the cutouts more tightly on a page. The software could both do the arranging automatically (saving the designer time and effort), and make suggestions for improvement (such as "reducing the width of this feature by 10 percent would allow you to fit 362 units per page rather than 294; this is a 23 percent paper cost savings.")
One of the most powerful things Adobe could do is help the world get off paper and get more digital. For instance, Lynch mentioned companies switching from printed quarterly reports to web-based publishing. This is a great thing for Adobe to promote and enable, and is likely to have a bigger impact than suggesting inks or paper types to designers. Perhaps they could create templates, or hosting services, or distribution channels, or other methods to encourage more companies to publish digitally. It could align perfectly with their business model. They don't make money off of people printing hardcopies of the things they design with Adobe software, but they could make money by helping people publish online.
Paper's user interface still beats digital in many ways, though, as we've mentioned before: it can be shared, written on, drawn on, highlighted, etc. All these things are possible using Acrobat, but many of these are still awkward compared to paper, mostly due to hardware interfaces. Screens plus mice and touchpads, etc. are no match for a pencil on a sheet of paper. When I asked about this, Lynch said it was largely a cultural issue more than a technical issue, and he certainly has a point that it's very hard to change people's habits, and there's only so much you can do with software interface. He also pointed out that some of it is due to poor workflow management in companies or governments, which is out of Adobe's hands. That said, a big portion of those habits and workflows are based on user interface. I'd be excited to see Adobe help push the adoption of more touch-screen tablet hardware, and more seamless integration of hardware and software, to go after this problem. It should be one that will both help the environment (by saving paper) and make lots of money (by making interfaces more natural, making the products and software more desirable). The best company to do this would really be Apple (we've seen Microsoft take its stab and, predictably, miss), or other OS companies (Ubuntu, maybe?) Still, Adobe could help push the market too. I'd like to see what they could come up with if they started playing more with the hardware people.
Read more on ETech 2009:
Coal and Cows, Ecological Madoff and the Brittle Rich
ETech 2009: RedMonk on Smart Grids
ETech 2009 roundup
Photo credit: flickr/toastiest, Creative Commons license.