Category Archives: presentation

powerpoint in transition

Hi, this is from Ray Cha, and I’ve just joined the folks at the Institute after working in various areas of commerical and educational new media. I also spend a lot of time thinking about the interplay between culture and technology. I read a small tidbit in this week’s Time magazine about PowerPoint and thought it would be a good topic for my first post.
Whether you love it (David Byrne) or hate it (Edward Tufte), PowerPoint is the industry standard presentation tool. Microsoft is gearing up to launch its long overdue PowerPoint upgrade in 2006. Time reports 400 million people use the application, and in a single day, 30 million presentations are given using it. Although the PowerPoint handout is still common, presentations are commonly created and showed only in a digital format. The presentation is a great example of how a medium goes through the process of becoming digitized.
When Microsoft purchased PowerPoint and its creator Forethought in 1987, presentations were shown on the once standard overhead projector and acetate slides. With PowerPoint’s Windows and DOS release, the software quickly replaced painstaking tedious letter transfers. However, PowerPoint presentations were still printed on expensive transparencies to be used with overhead projectors throughout the 1990s. As digital projectors became less expensive and more common in conference rooms, acetate slides became a rarity as the hand written letter did in the age of email.
Presentations were an obvious candidate to pioneer the transition into digital text. As stated, presentations were time intensive and expensive to produce and are often given off site. Therefore, a demand existed to improve on the standard way of creating and delivering presentations. I will also go out on a limb and also suggest that people did not have the emotional connection as they do with books, making the transition easier. In terms of the technological transfer, presentation creators already had desktop computers when PowerPoint was released with MS Office in 1990. By printing their PowerPoint output onto transparencies, display compatibility was not an issue. The PowerPoint user base could grow as the digital projector market expanded more slowly. This growth encouraged organizations to adapt to digital projectors as well. Overhead and digital projectors are a shared resource, therefore an organization only needs one project per conference room. These factors lead to fast track adoption. In contrast, ebook hardware is not efficiently shared, people have an emotional bond with paper-based books, and far fewer people write books than presentations. Only when handheld displays become as common and functional as mobile phones, will the days of paper handouts will be numbered.
Moving to a digital format has negative effects as mentioned by critics such as Tufte. Transferring each letter by hand did encourage text to concise and to the point. Also, transparencies were expensive as compared to PowerPoint slides, where the cost of the marginal slide is effectively zero, which is why we are often subjected to painstakingly long PowerPoint presentation. Although, these same critics argue that valuable time is wasted now in the infinite fiddling that occurs in the production of PowerPoint presentations at the expense of thinking about and developing content.
The development of the digital presentation begins to show the factors required to transfer text into a digital medium. Having an existing user base, a clear advantage in terms of cost and capability, the ability to allow users to use existing technology to either create or display the text, all start to reveal insight on how a printed text transforms into a digital medium.