For a fee, the Web-based service Pixily does a good job of turning paper clutter into searchable online documents
Life comes with too much paper, especially if you're like me: a mildly obsessive but poorly organized pack-rat.
I'm afraid to throw away potentially useful pieces of paper out of fear that I'll need them later. This often results in my personal spaces at home and at the office looking disorganized—some would say a mess. I envy people who are good at organizing, and at depositing bills, financial statements, and other important documents into file cabinets. I marvel at the spaces of well-organized colleagues whose offices look orderly.
Paper has a funny way of accumulating. I've long been in the habit of clipping interesting things from newspapers and magazines, though now I'll often grab copies of stuff I like online and save it to my hard drive. But what about the stuff you can't just grab from a Google (GOOG) search—the stuff that's only on paper?
THAT PINK FLOYD REVIEW
For instance, I have hundreds of articles from early in my career—I started out as a newspaper reporter—that are boxed away in a basement, slowly decaying. I have a life's worth of other analogous ephemera that for whatever reason I'd like to preserve in digital form: a review in a French newspaper of a 1988 Pink Floyd concert I attended, old recipes found in magazines that I still want to try, memorable cards and letters from family and friends, tax and legal records, financial statements. All this is scattered about with no rhyme or reason in cabinets and boxes in my home and office.
Some of it—the articles I've written, especially—I'd like to scan and store on my computer's hard drive and perhaps publish on the Web. There are excellent document scanners on the market that make that task fairly easy to do, but then who has the time, let alone the organizational skills? I'd prefer instead to hire someone to do the scanning and then organize the digital files into some sense of order.
Recently, I tried a Web-based service called Pixily that does just that. The company describes itself as an "interactive document management service." For a monthly fee that starts at $4.95 and goes as high as $59.95, depending on how many pages are involved, Pixily's employees in Waltham, Mass., will scan your bits of paper—whatever they may be—and store them for you in a secure Web-based account.
Better than just taking a photo of the documents you send, your documents are be subjected to something called optical character recognition, which means that as the picture of the document is created the words it contains are, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, captured as well. The result: Once the documents are in your account, you can search through the results. For example, I sent a copy of a recent BusinessWeek article on OPEC, and from the home screen searched for occurrences of "OPEC," and Pixily's search function found them all.
Depending on your level of service, Pixily will send you a designated number of envelopes each month, which you can stuff with about 50 pages each and send back for scanning. For $14.95 a month you get one envelope a month; for $59.95 you get four. In all cases, the postage is free. The two lowest tiers of service, the free version and the $4.95 a month version, don't include envelope service, though for an added fee you can request it. There are storage limits, counted in pages: For no charge you can store a total of 200 pages, and that total rises to as much as 12,000 for the highest price band.
You may request that the paper originals be shredded or returned; if the latter Pixily will mail them back to you in another envelope. The whole process takes a few days. I sent my trial envelope in on a Thursday and was notified that the documents were ready for viewing seven days later. I opted to have them sent back, and the return envelope arrived another two days later, the entire process taking seven business days.
The results were impressive, considering I did my best to challenge Pixily's scanners. Among the things I sent: the front page of a newspaper and the sports statistics page from another, a credit card statement, a faded credit card receipt from a restaurant, a yellowed rental car receipt, a few articles torn from various magazines (Pixily won't scan anything bound, such as an intact book or magazine), and a handwritten note. All but the handwritten note were perfectly searchable, and perfectly readable on my screen. Scanning is done in color, and both sides of the paper are scanned unless one side is blank.
PUBLIC OR SECRET
From the Pixily home screen you can print a copy of the document, share it with others you select, or publish the document on a Web site or blog in the same way you would a YouTube video clip. You can keep it private—Pixily encourages strong passwords—or share it with someone for only a limited time. For example, I had scanned a copy of a magazine article I wrote, and then from within Pixily e-mailed a link to a person I quoted in the story. Once I saw that he had downloaded a copy, I revoked access to the document to everyone but me.
Pixily also makes it easy to organize your documents using a feature called "tagging." For instance, I might send to Pixily a bunch of old financial statements from the Acme Investment company and tag them "Acme." These labels are visible on the left side of the home screen, and at a click bring up all the documents that bear that tag, and documents can have multiple tags.
The thought of sending sensitive personal documents may make you nervous, and with good reason. You are, after all, putting paper in the hands of a person who's going to run it through a scanner. Who knows what might happen to it? I asked Pixily's CEO and co-founder, Prasad Thammineni, about this. He told me that the employees who do the scanning work are subjected to thorough background screening checks, and that no recording devices of any kind, including cell phones, are allowed in the scanning center. Documents are tracked throughout the process. During shipping, documents are sent in via First Class mail in tamper-resistant Tyvek envelopes. Boxes—for occasions when you want a lot of documents scanned at once—are shipped via FedEx (FDX). Once scanned, documents are stored at one of Amazon's data centers, protected behind 256-bit encryption. Plus the security firm McAfee (MCAF) does a daily audit of the company's online operations for security vulnerabilities. And if you stay logged in to your account too long, the service automatically logs you out.
In addition to scanning, Pixily can become a storage vault for digital files you don't want to lose. You can upload Adobe (ADBE) PDF files, files created in Microsoft Office (MSFT), Web pages, and images files including JPEG and TIFF files. You can also e-mail photos from a cell phone, say a photo of notes on a white board. I didn't try that option.
A FEW DRAWBACKS
Overall, I like the service and have no problem recommending it, though I do have a few criticisms. First, it seems obvious that there should be an option for sending in documents by fax. Second, I could have used a little more guidance on how to organize the documents I sent for scanning. In one case, two pages I sent belonged together but they were turned into separate files. (I realized too late I should have used a paper clip.) Now I'd like a way to combine two files into one file. In another case, I sent a long article clipped from a magazine—it totaled 17 pages, including seven full-page ads. I want to delete the ad pages, but there's no apparent way.
With no effort at all, I had 240 pages in my 3,000-page Pixily account. What that says about my organizational skills, I'll leave to the experts.