With a modest piece of software that converts digital photos to handy little photo albums, Doug Rowan is rekindling a longstanding technological...

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With a modest piece of software that converts digital photos to handy little photo albums, Doug Rowan is rekindling a longstanding technological debate.

In an age of digital cameras, computerized editing and vast storage capacity, do we really need prints? Rowan is not only saying yes. He’s taking it a step further. Paper is better, he says.

I was flabbergasted at Rowan’s partiality. Here’s a guy who was former CEO of Bill Gates’ digital-photo company, Corbis. The whole idea behind Corbis is to create digital archives of the world’s great images, because in the lexicon of the future, digital means forever. Paper, canvas and other physical media are temporal.

But people move on, and Rowan now heads ZoomAlbum, a six-person enterprise in Seattle with big things in mind. ZoomAlbum sells do-it-yourself kits to convert digital photos into flip-through albums. The kits come with software (Windows only), paper and covers.

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You supply the printer and manual dexterity. The whole process takes 15 minutes or so. ZoomAlbum can use just about any resolution of image because the albums are small — 3 square inches.

ZoomAlbums make great Christmas gifts — a finished album for a friend or loved one, or a kit for the shutterbug in the family. A kit that makes three albums runs about $20 retail.

ZoomAlbum just scored a big deal with Michael’s, the art-supply chain, for 90,000 orders. Rowan can’t say yet who else the company is talking to, but he has several national retailers interested.

(Note: Be sure to check that your printer is on the approved list at zoomalbum.com. Some have paper-feed problems. Two Epsons worked fine for me, but both of my Hewlett-Packard printers had problems.)

Rowan, whose eyes glint with evangelistic zeal when he talks about the power of images in our lives, says the albums are especially popular with teens and 20somethings. He thinks they’ll have the same appeal for seniors looking for ways to carry on the scrapbook tradition in a cybernetic world.

As for me, I had to stop him at one point and scratch my head. I do almost all my photo sharing via Web sites, blogs and e-mail. It works for me, although my wife complains sometimes that digital means never sitting in the living room flipping through scrapbooks.

A sober expression crossed Rowan’s face. “I believe the only way to guarantee a photo’s survival through the next century is this — paper,” he said.

He has a point. Digital formats change. Storage media wear out. Remember when CDs first appeared in the early 1980s, how they were touted to never scratch, break or degrade? Does anyone still believe that?

To illustrate his point, Rowan carries around an 1870 photograph of his grandfather as an infant.

It’s tough to argue with that kind of evidence. Given the rate of technological change, who really has faith that CDs and JPEG files will be around in the year 2140?

Seattle freelance writer Paul Andrews has written about technology for more than two decades. He can be reached at pandrews@seattletimes.com.