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QUITE FRANKLY, BILL, PAPER IS ALREADY PASSE

SHARE QUITE FRANKLY, BILL, PAPER IS ALREADY PASSE

Most of Bill Gates' new book is about things I won't be dealing with for a decade - electronic money and wallet PCs, to name two.

Then there was this sentence on page 114."Within a few years," he writes, "the digital document will be the original, and paper printouts will be secondary."

In many areas, I'm behind the times; ask me to name five rock groups, and I'd have to dip back to 1969. But as far as digital documents being the future? I can't remember the last time I wrote a story on paper.

It's not a proud admission. The typewriter remains a romantic symbol for journalists. When I first got a computer, I kept a noble Smith-Corona manual in the garage for posterity.

A few years ago, my daughter noticed it.

"What's that?" she asked.

Today, I can't imagine writing non-electronically. I've no idea how Charles Dickens wrote all those books without being able to move paragraphs around with a key stroke.

But at first, I didn't trust computers. Shortly after beginning to write on them, I spent a 10-hour day struggling over an article. Around 8 p.m., shortly before deadline, it was finished. I took a short break, then tried to call it back on screen for a last polish.

"File Not Found," said the command line. A computer technician was called for help, but he declared my data wiped out. A clear advantage of paper: I'll bet Dickens never returned to his writing pad to discover his file not found.

But paper had its headaches. In my first newspaper job, there was a curious rule to make sure story pages didn't get lost or mixed up. They had us paste our articles together with rubber cement - end to end. One editor, always on the lookout for long-winded writing, would stand up upon being given a story and hold it aloft next to him. If it was taller than he was, he'd throw it back at you for cuts before even reading it.

Writing on paper also left you at the mercy of editors who gave no slack on deadlines. If I pushed the clock too much, suddenly, they would appear at my typewriter.

"You have 30 seconds," they would say. I'd type frantically, pleading for just a moment more, but they'd do it every time: Rip the page out as I was in mid-keystroke.

With computers, you can always buy more time by insisting you've stopped writing and are "sending it."

And though readers may still find newspapers too prone toward typos, it was worse in the era of paper. All stories would have to be retyped by linotype operators, some close to deadline. To avoid disaster, we had to circle every "not" in red pen. Drop one - "The mayor insisted he was not involved in taking bribes" - and it wasn't pretty.

There are a few diehards in the writing field known for sticking stubbornly to their typewriters. Sounds romantic, but I like word-processing.

Then again, phrases like that do give me pause. I don't write anymore, I word-process.

And though I can put computer-written stories on paper, it's an afterthought. A copy. As far as originals, to use Gates' term, they're now digital documents. The Hemingways of today won't be leaving behind first drafts inked up with rewrites in the margins; just disks.

At least the published versions remain on paper. Even Gates' book. As he points out, the print in books, using technology invented 500 years ago, is still higher-resolution than on computer screens. Score one for Gutenberg over Compaq.

But what's this in the back of Gates' book? A CD-ROM disc.

"Includes the complete book text," it says. Not to mention hundreds of multimedia hyperlinks, whatever those are. I just may have to continue the book that way.

Right after finishing this column. I'm past deadline, and it still needs a polish. No problem. Now that I'm electronic, there's a way to buy more time.

I'll tell my editor it's done, I'm just sending it.