by John McIntyre, The Imaging Channel
In 2007 — less than 10 years ago for those keeping score at home — the iPhone appeared, followed one year later by HTC’s Dream, the first Android smartphone. It is unlikely that manufacturers of whole categories of devices would have immediately recognized the dire threat to their core business that the advent of the iPhone presented, or the opportunity to revolutionize an existing business process either.
The Law of Unintended Consequences is what it states – “B” happens when you do “A” even though you didn’t initially envision it as a result. If we have learned anything, we should know this: everything is connected to everything else. Of the technology products we use daily, no single product better epitomizes the concept of “capture and convergence” than the smartphone – a device that is a PC, phone, camera, MP3 player, calculator, GPS, clock, radio, TV, flashlight, and personal text and audio notebook all in a handheld package that fits in your pocket. Burgeoning sales of smartphones triggered many unintended consequences, including a dramatic plunge in the sales of point-and-shoot digital cameras (almost 80 percent), standalone GPS devices, MP3 players, and other individual digital appliances, as well as the displacement of the desktop/laptop PC as the dominant technology in everyday life and the device representing the largest percentage of internet usage. Hey, what would Facebook be without the billions of uploaded pics from cell phones everywhere or if you couldn’t access it everywhere?
If your firm’s field-based or mobile-based employees have been collecting important, time-sensitive paper documents that they hold and then scan when they get back to the office, you have had the option of buying them one of the few available portable scanners, but those usually need a laptop to operate and you can’t carry it in your pocket. Although we are loath to make sweeping generalizations, there is no longer any doubt that the intersection of smartphones sporting 4G/LTE connectivity, larger displays, high-resolution cameras with image stabilization capabilities, powerful internal processing capabilities, and improved ease-of-use, with the addition of a capable mobile scanning app, have had an effect on the usage and perceived value of the standalone, local, one-sheet-at-a-time flatbed scanner. Smartphones can now scan documents of varying sizes or types, have embedded processing and application resources, need no PC, are easy to use to scan a document, fit in your pocket, and are ready at any moment, any place, to upload their scans to whatever server or host you choose. Oh, and the scanning capability, built into the phone, is, um … free.
So here are some questions:
Does your company have field-based employees that routinely deal with originating or receiving business-critical or transaction paper-based documents? How about eliminating any “I’ll scan that form when I get back to the office” time friction that might be associated with a key business origination transaction?
How are those documents input in your company’s process? If it’s not digitally, it should be, if at all possible. Always digitize documents such as these as soon as possible. This way they won’t get lost and you won’t see last-minute overnight shipping charges to get paper documents into HQ. Additionally, digitizing at time and point of receipt will absolutely increase the velocity of any related or subsequent business processes – by at least hours, and possibly days or weeks.
Digitized documents, uploaded to your corporate server, are available instantly to anyone in the company for compliance or any approval review, and faster digital document input means faster identification of mistakes or errors, faster correction and recovery of such mistakes, and better overall customer service – even if the “customer” is an internal participant.
Here is a proposition: use a spreadsheet to identify how many of these documents received by your employees in the field but not digitized instantly your company deals with daily, and multiply that number by the input cycle time reduction offered by immediate point-of-receipt scanning and upload. That is the number of hours or days (or weeks or even months!) of time friction that will be removed from your business processes. Multiply that number by 250 work days. How does that sound? Oh, did we mention that your field employees already have this capability in their pockets?
Will smartphones then replace all standalone flatbed scanners? No, they are not the solution to every scanning application or need, just as smartphones have not replaced all digital cameras or other single-function devices. But, as with cameras and GPS units, the ability of mobile devices to capture/scan many field collected documents likely meets the 80/20 rule: enough capability to satisfy 80 percent of users for common applications (recall that digital camera factoid?) They also add one humongous advantage that opens entire new realms for document capture: Mobility, mobility, mobility.
Scanning anywhere, anytime — untethered. The scanner that comes to you and with you, wherever you go. The everyday use of a mobile handset to scan paper documents anywhere is now irrefutably an idea whose time has come: existing smartphone hardware is more than capable of satisfying the task and is getting more capable every day. There are a bevy of free or low-cost apps that make scanning easy and reliable, and the business impetus to speed up field data input, lower costs, and enable the mobile workforce to do more, faster, and easier, for less is hard to dismiss.
From Selfies to Scanning
Adding a camera to cell phones immediately fostered a new photo category with its own name: selfie. Scanners are, in essence, cameras optimized to capture specific content types or formats, such as documents. A smartphone equipped with a scanning app becomes exactly that. Early smartphones lacked the embedded hardware capabilities or supporting infrastructure to attempt to reliably scan and process a paper document. What has changed since 2007?
- Breathtaking increases in handheld processing power – essentially equivalent to a laptop from a decade ago.
- Tenfold or better increases in cell phone megapixel capability with enhanced resolution attributes and the addition of sophisticated optical image stabilization (OIS) functionality – an absolute necessity for delivering image quality in any handheld capture device.
- Quantum growth in functions, ease of use and maturity in Android and iOS platforms
- An explosion in the number and variety of available apps for mobile scanning and image processing.
- 4G and LTE upload infrastructures and widespread improvement in geographic cell phone coverage.
- User familiarity and comfort with mobile phone photo taking – photographing a stationary document is no great leap in thinking.
- The image capture capabilities of sophisticated smartphones come bundled along with its other features so the scanner capability is free. Free always wins, trust me on this one – especially when it can deliver 80 percent of the functionality with added benefits. A no brainer, folks.
- Independent, mobile, and self-contained: desktop scanners are tied to either the corporate network or a local PC and mostly rely on server or PC-based software to onboard the captured data and perform post-capture functions such as OCR. Embedded handset cameras/scanners are already connected to both their embedded CPU and the resident software scanning app, and of course, to the cell network – they are completely self-contained.
- Heightened corporate and government initiatives to reduce paper usage and digitize paper inputs to the organization and offer mobile self-services to reduce costs.
- The Federal Check 21 Act took effect in October 2004, allowing the recipient of an original paper check to create a digital version, a process known as check truncation, into an electronic format called a “substitute check,” thereby eliminating the need for further handling of the physical document. This and other digitization initiatives by the banking/financial industry and major corporations have made it clear: immediate, point-of-receipt digitization works, is reliable, and once it has been implemented, nobody wants to go back to the old way of doing things.
- Migration of single-function-printer peripherals into multifunction machines with onboard scanners broadens document scanning usage and applications, and brings the elemental scan-and-send concept to almost any remote work location and user.
- Growth of millennials in the workforce – a generation that was born digital and mobile, and prefers working with digital documents rather than paper, wherever they are. With a smartphone in their pocket, they have a scanner wherever they go. Their first impetus is to digitize any paper they have to deal with.
All of the market demand factors and the corresponding enablers are present now and have ignited an explosion in the use of mobile phones for document scanning.
It Only Gets Better and Easier
Think the cell phone makers are done with enhancing cell phone image capture capabilities? You thought wrong. The slowdown in growth – and related price erosion – in the cell phone market has phone makers scrambling to find new features/functions to add differentiation and value in their offerings. Since image capture is perhaps the second most popular function of a cell phone, makers have concentrated engineering horsepower in this area – particularly any image functionality that is aimed at B2B applications and users. A number of improvements are in the technology pipeline for enhanced cell phone imaging, such as better and thinner lenses, superior optical image stabilization (OIS), multiple lens handsets and optical zoom capability.
Handheld document scanning capture has always had obvious challenges with image stability and the resulting document integrity/accuracy and usability for its intended application. In a year, with the implementation of many of the above (and other) imaging capture enhancement technologies, handsets will be even better positioned to reliably perform handheld/remote document scan/image applications.
What are People Scanning With Handsets?
- When you enable users to scan documents anywhere, anytime, and upload them instantly to wherever they need to, it doesn’t take them long to recognize applications for that capture capability. Businesses, eager to speed up document processes and lower costs, have also been aggressive in identifying various customer paper document point-of-entry processes, and developing functionality to accept hand-scanned images for acceptance and processing in applications such as:
- Mobile scan for ID card verification and confirmation in security-related applications.
- Mobile scan for remote banking deposits (industry technology leader Mitex claims more than 1 billion checks have been deposited this way already) for both consumer and commercial-to-commercial check processing.
- Mobile OCR for fast and accurate data capture and form pre-fill functions – used in bill and credit card payments, loan origination, insurance quotes, charity donation acceptance, bank account openings, driver’s license and other permit application processes.
- Capture of any handwritten standardized form or application document data – insurance claims, job applications, customer requests or acceptance forms, real estate forms, contracts, construction and related regulatory field approval documents, and scans for later use as a fax or backup.
- Handwriting/signature verification, handwritten sketches or drawings, meeting notes while on the road, whiteboard/blackboard capture, and those crumpled notes you wrote on a napkin when you had drinks with your boss.
- Business cards.
- Credit card and cash expense receipts.
- Capturing a book, flyer, or catalog page, for later reference.
- Tabletop, door-to-door and mobile kiosk sellers can capture check images or signed customer documents at POS, including outdoor locations without available AC power.
The technology enhancements and upgrades that will be added to handsets over the next few years will only broaden the potential mobile document scan applications while also improving the scanned quality and usability of any captured images.
There are a wealth of solid phone apps for both iOS and Android (and even Windows phones) devoted to making mobile document capture reliable, and a breeze. Some popular ones offer features such as OCR recognition and text capture; automatic upload and archiving to the cloud of any scanned image; conversion to PDF or Office documents; embedded watermarks or other secure ID data; multi-page or batch scanning, organized for retrieval; auto-cropping, auto document alignment, isolation from the background, enhanced scans to bring out text, and overall image perspective compensation; varying capabilities in document editing and reformatting; image enhancement for hand-written documents, sketches, notes; scanned notes annotation and highlighting; auto syncing to cloud services such as Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive or a corporate network server; password protection; options to scan in color, grayscale, or black and white; and multiple language support.
Many of the available apps are either free or priced very modestly – if the need to successfully accomplish mobile-based scanning is a valued business mission, the minimal cost of an app that is well suited to your specific business scanning task, is supported by the OS of your employee phone base, and has the ease of use appropriate to your staff skill set, then don’t let a small charge for the right app be an obstacle.
Mobile smartphone scanning could be one of those “aha” ideas – the instant when you realize that there is a new and better way to do what you have been doing, and you immediately envision how adopting this new paradigm can be a game changer for how your employees perform an important document capture responsibility. Think about it.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of The Imaging Channel.
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