Jul 292008

I’m slowly gaining ground in the war against paper.  I’m a packrat, which immediately calls into question the structural integrity of my house and garage.  However, I’ve discovered that technology transcends the limitations of corporeal space.  I can still hoard precious tidbits for posterity in digital form without risking premature burial under collapsing stacks of old bills.  I scan the pages that I just know I will need to review again in a few years and store them on a network-attached hard disk.

Welcome to the new me: I’m a digital packrat.

I hear your smirks and chuckles, but to those who understand packratting, the digital difference cannot be understated. How often do you get to say “Hey, I didn’t know we had carpet in here!”

Digitization is helping to reduce the paper pileup, but it still takes time to do the scanning. Not that storage is really an issue, but pixels that look like text take up a lot more space than actual text. 

Why not use paperless billing?  Most of the major credit card vendors now offer some sort of online alternative to sending trees through the mail.  Most of them even offer the documents in PDF format.

What I don’t like about paperless billing is that it requires that you log into each individual bank’s web site to retrieve your bill.  It takes time and effort to go get that bill each month, from a different location and menu tree for each bank. Letting the paper bill come to me and scanning it when I get around to it seems like much less of my energy than running all over creation to pluck one apple from every orchard.

Email delivery might work, but then again I’m a techie who isn’t afraid of a “Save Attachment as…” dialog. I don’t know of many banks that offer to send bills electronically by email.

What would be really nice is if the monthly statements for all my recurring bills could be deposited into a storage location of my choice, online or on my local machine or network.  I’d set up a different “drop zone” for each vendor and map that to a location on my hard disk (my home network hard disk, actually).  The vendor could write documents into the drop zone I created for them, but nothing more.  They can’t read, delete, or modify anything else, and they don’t have direct access to my local hard disk.  The list of drop zones is only visible to me.  I wouldn’t have to do anything to receive my monthly statements, store them in location(s) convenient to me, and ensure data safety through redundant storage.  Packrat heaven!

Microsoft’s Live Mesh already implements nearly everything required for this scenario to work. You can define a folder in Live Mesh that is accessible only to certain Live Mesh users, and Live Mesh will take care of replicating that folder to local storage on devices you indicate. So, conceptually, I could create a different Live Mesh folder for each vendor, configure the Live Mesh folder to replicate to a local directory on my home network, and invite the vendors write the monthly statements into their respective folders.  My home network could even be offline at the time a vendor writes a new statement to a Mesh folder – the mesh will sync up as soon as my network is online again and deliver the new documents that are missing from the local copy.

The missing piece is write-only access to a Mesh folder.  The current public beta of Live Mesh does not appear to support granting someone write only access to a Live Mesh shared object, such as a folder.  If that can be taken care of, then the only remaining piece to solve is to convince my banks and vendors to update their billing systems to deliver monthly statements into my Live Mesh drop zones.  Compared to getting new features into a Microsoft product, that should be a piece of cake.  ;>

Digital packrats of the world, unite!