Feb. 11, 2012 — -- The surging smartphone has succeeded in rendering many other gadgets obsolete.
The alarm clock? Who needs one?
The GPS navigation system? Why pay for one when you can get turn-by-turn for free?
But there's something big that the smartphone, try as it might, has not been able to stare down into oblivion: pen and paper.
Even as we scramble to replace our daily activities with simplified digital solutions, there's still nothing quite like writing something down.
Mobile interfaces, even for the agile-thumbed, can be cumbersome.
Devices like the Apple iPad are popping up in more boardrooms, but anyone who tries to take notes or manage a calendar on one quickly runs into problems. The novelty factor quickly fades as men and women in suits struggle to thumb in notes during important meetings.
Still, one of the most competitive app categories today is productivity and task management. It seems every week there's a hot new app that promises to streamline our digital lives, linking things like to-do lists and calendars to help keep us focused.
Apple's Siri digital personal assistant, baked into the iPhone 4S, includes a much-hyped feature to help add reminders to a calendar.
In fact, that's where this column began — a list of the best apps to help you stay on task.
But even this tech columnist, who spends an embarrassing amount of time each day perched behind screens of all sizes, quickly came to a realization.
There's still nothing better than paper.
Best tool for the job
The pen and paper have found an unlikely ally in Detroit-based designer and developer David Klawitter.
Even as he works to create innovative digital interfaces for the Web and mobile devices, his process is decidedly analog.
His designs begin as a sketch on paper, many of which are often spread across his desk in the newly renovated Detroit Labs offices inside the M@dison — a Dan Gilbert-owned building.
Only after Klawitter's ideas are fleshed out does he begin building app interfaces on a computer.
For Klawitter, paper is the only way to ensure he's allowing himself to sketch freely, without the constraints that come with a computer mouse or tablet screen.
"You don't focus on the details," he says. "Just put the bulk of the work down."
And as someone who designs interfaces for mobile devices, Klawitter realizes that he's asking people to do something cumbersome.
"The input of information is still a little strange," Klawitter says. "It doesn't feel right."
This friction is not lost on Field Notes, a brand of actual paper notebooks that has seen its sales increase steadily the last few years, even as the legion of smartphone owners also grows.
There's a charm to Field Notes — my favorite notebook. They're modeled after promotional notebooks once given to farmers by seed companies in the 1930s and '40s, says brand manager Michele Seiler.
"Everything has become so digitized, that this is sort of deliciously analog," Seiler says. "You can hold it in your hand and write it down and it fits in your back pocket. I think people like the nostalgia of that."
That pocket-sized charm has propelled Field Notes to a darling status of sorts in the movement to push back on some of the digital intrusions in our lives.
Field Notes are now carried in J. Crew stores nationwide and customers snatch them up at diverse places such as a high-end men's fashion store in the UK and a hardware store in Texas.
So it's OK — join the steady numbers of people reaching for the pen and paper.
Reports of their demise — death by app, apparently — have been greatly exaggerated.