Mobile Tech


There has been a lot of buzz lately about e-readers, such as Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook.  Best Buy also blitzed us with ads this Christmas for the Sony Reader.  Until recently, I blew these off, because as a book reader, I liked having the physical book, and the ability to turn pages.  I also was skeptical of the way copyrights and DRM would come into play.  The prime example of this was the ironically Orwellian incident with the Kindle where Amazon discovered that they did not have digital rights to certain of Orwell’s works, which then disappeared from users’ devices.

However, recently I have been rethinking my position and mainly eying it as a device that would help me to maintain a paperless office.  Sure it is great to scan all of your documents.  Less paper, less storage, easier recovery from disaster, and, well, you get the idea.  One of the downsides of this is the portability of data.  What happens when you are away from your office?  A physical file can be flipped through; booting up your laptop can be a pain, depending on where you are.  Enter the e-book, which can store and display PDF documents as well as e-books.  One can find and review documents much easier in a court hallway, bus, or some other place where a laptop might not make the best sense.

This got the devices on my tech radar, but I would definitely recommend that attorneys hold off on purchasing a device like this right away.   Apple is rumored to be announcing a tablet PC with e-reader capability on January 27, while many new devices will be announced this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, including, it is rumored, one by Microsoft and HP.   Have it on your 2010 shopping list, but keep an eye on developments in the next few months in order to get the best all-around device that won’t be “one-upped” a few weeks later.

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Well, I finally got a netbook computer, after months of shopping and research. The Asus Eee 1000HE seemed like the best choice, with its 10 inch screen, latest Intel Atom CPU, Bluetooth capability, 9.5-hour rated battery, and generous ports (although it does not come with an optical drive). There is also an external monitor port, which is nice, a built-in microphone and webcam, 10 Gb of free online storage, and Skype software. So far, I am very pleased with my choice; in fact, I am using it to write this post.

The keyboard is fairly comfortable at 92% of a standard keyboard size, although I do not think I could recommend typing an appellate brief on it. The SD Card port allows me to upload photos from my camera for viewing and storage, while the headset port allows me to use it to listen to my music. I have yet to try out the Bluetooth capability with my cell phone (post to follow), but that would be great for backing up my phone data, including the pictures I take with it. The battery is holding up well and so far holding up its promise on longevity, but only time will tell.

The point here is that, although it is not a replacement for your main machine, it is a great, all-purpose workhorse for many tasks on the road, including:

  • More effective out-of-office web browsing than a smart phone (although naturally not as portable);
  • Access to music and pictures;
  • PowerPoint presentations off-site;
  • Access to files from anywhere when they are on Asus’ online storage server;
  • More effective document editing than on a handheld device (although nothing that long term or involved); and
  • Video conference calls using Skype for VoIP.

The only criticism I have so far is that it did not come with a trial version of antivirus software to keep me safe until I can download and install something else. Also, I was hoping to be able to use a USB external CD-ROM drive I have for system recovery, but the rescue disk that came with the machine was a DVD. Oh well. I can still use it to install software from CDs.

The bottom line is that a mobile lawyer can certainly use this machine to be more effective while out of the office. It does not replace a full-blown laptop, but it does act as a smartphone on steroids. Asus is a good company that makes solid products, which are certainly worth a look.

One of the first posts I wrote for this blog talked about the new HP laptop I had purchased (an HP dv9000t), and the advantages of the widescreen computer.  However, as I have used the machine since then, and in looking at netbooks over the last couple of months, I realized that I had not set my priorities right when I had bought it.  This is something that everyone shopping for a laptop should do.

In essence, what I bought was a desktop replacement machine, when what I really needed was something more portable to enable me to work from anywhere.  The machine is great.  It has a 17″ widescreen and a keyboard with a conventional numeric keypad, which is terrific for my bankruptcy practice, where I am constantly entering numeric data.  It had lots of RAM, a roomy hard drive, a good video board, and a fast processor.  However, when I said in that post that it was “a better portable office than machines with smaller, conventional screens,” I must say I was wrong.

A portable office has to be portable, and lugging around a heavier, bulkier machine just makes it more difficult.  If you are just going back and forth from office to home, this may well not be a big deal; but if you are traveling by air or trying to be more productive during downtime in court, a smaller lighter screen would be much more practical.

As for netbooks, although they are far more portable, I would not necessarily recommend them as a primary laptop.  Although they are great for web access, e-mail, and short term keyboard usage, real work needs to be done on a larger screen and a bigger, more comfortable keyboard.  Look for a machine with a 12-14 inch screen to keep the weight and bulkiness down.  Also consider how much work you are going to do away from a power outlet, as batteries with longer lives are bigger and heavier.

Just get what you need.  Avoid the hype for features such as larger hard drives, more than 3 gigs of RAM, or video boards.  Get a good, fast dual core CPU.  Also, whatever you do, wait for Windows 7 to come out.  Most of what I am reading about it is that it is a big improvement over Vista and does not have the heavy hardware resource demands.  Even Ubuntu Linux fans like Sam Glover over at the Lawyerist are saying it is worthwhile.

Lawyers need to work from anywhere in order to be more productive and more competitive.  This means portability.  If you want the laptop to be your primary machine, consider a docking station.  This will give you the portability, along with the larger screen and more conventional keyboard and mouse that you are used to in the office.  In this way, you get the best of both!

I have been posting a lot lately about netbooks, probably because I am shopping for one (will probably get an Asus model), and have been reading quite a bit about them online.   I like the idea of going back to basics with computing and using a machine that addresses your core needs and not adding a lot of features you may never use.   This helps us to do more with less, which means greater portability, longer battery life, and thus more efficiency on the road.  The netbook has been for awhile the antithesis of the PC hardware industry.  A quote I discussed here made a point that really says it all:

“For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, while customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did.”

In effect, the hardware manufacturers have been telling us what we need, rather than the other way around, in order to increase profits.  The netbook thus creates this much-needed responsiveness, and people have been buying them in droves.  You would think, then, that the hardware industry has finally “gotten it.”   However, this post on PCWorld’s blog shows that maybe they haven’t learned their lesson.

As the article points out, the lines are getting blurred.  Screens are getting bigger, video resolution is higher end, optical drives are being added, along with standard size keyboards.  Asus is adding a DVD drive and an LCD screen that supports 720p HD video for watching movies.  The price also reflects this: $531 and $590.  Hey, I thought netbooks were supposed to be cheap!  There seems to be some “feature creep” going on here to push the traditional netbook more high end.  As the article points out, “PC makers have long been conditioned to compete by continually adding new features whenever they are available.”

This appears to be an attempt to get buyers to spend more money for more machine than they may need, all to make more of a profit in a bad economy.  Anyone shopping for a netbook should keep a sharp eye on this and, when looking at one of these “netbooks on growth hormones,” ask themselves: for these features and these prices, am I better off just buying a more traditional laptop with a larger keyboard, better screen graphics, and more hard drive storage?  Keep your eyes focused on your needs, not what a manufacturer wants you to buy.

I am currently shopping for a netbook, which has me scanning blogs and web sites for advice on hardware and software features.  In this search I ran across a great post on Laptop Magazine‘s blog that set forth some very good pointers. although I do not agree with all of them.  As to hardware, they said:

  • RAM: Go for at least 1Gb.  I agree.  Many netbooks sport 512Mb, which may be all right for Linux, but definitely not enough for XP.  Even if you do get Linux, you will be thankful for the memory overhead;
  • Screen: Get a 10″ model, not the 8.9″.  If you are over 40, this is certainly good advice, if you want good screen readability.  Much larger than 10″, however, and you are defeating the purpose of getting a netbook;
  • Battery: Get a 6-cell battery, rather than a 3- or 4-cell one.  This can result in significantly longer battery life (4-6 hours rather than 2-3 hours), which is always a boost to the portability you are going for in a netbook; and
  • Hard Drive: The post espouses hard drives rather than solid state drives (SSDs) and ones with RPMs of 5,400 rather than 4,200.  This, they state, is because hard drives offer better write performance than SSDs.  As to the capacity of the drive, I would not look to get too much; less is better.  Remember, many people use netbooks for cloud computing with Google apps or other web-based solutions that do not result in much local storage. along with web browsing and e-mail.  Again, you are using this for work, which produces documents and spreadsheets that do not take up nearly the room of photos, video, or music (which are not the recommended use of netbooks).  In short: netbooks are not intended for a lot of local data storage or huge client applications.  Get the memory you need, but do not go overboard.

Where I really disagree with the post is on the issue of the operating system you choose.  They do warn you off Vista (which is good advice), but they steer you towards XP over Linux (which is not necessarily the best advice).  They mention software compatibility as a reason, but you must ask yourself this: if you are just using the netbook for e-mail and for web-based solutions, why is XP necessarily better?  Linux does the same thing with no compatibility issues (so you might have to learn to use Firefox, Opera, or Chrome rather than IE; big deal), and runs faster on the same hardware.  For most tasks, OpenOffice is just as good as Microsoft Office when Google Docs won’t do or you don’t have access to the Internet.

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I have posted several times before about how I see Linux entering the law office market, whether through big firms or through the back office (i.e. the servers).  However, it has become apparent in the past few months that there is another inroad developing that may fast-track the OS into the legal market.  This is the introduction and rise of the netbook.

More and more laptop users (and road warrior lawyers) have been discovering that they use their portable computers mainly for e-mail and web based applications.  Thus people have been buying netbooks as secondary machines in order to have lightweight, highly portable computers for travel (here is a great post on the development of the netbook that explains this phenomenon).  These netbooks often come with 512Mb to 1Gb of RAM, slower, more energy efficient microprocessors (Intel’s Atom for the most part), which means that the OS that runs on it must be lean and mean, a term seldom, if ever, applied to a Microsoft product.  In fact, Vista, if it does run on a netbook, runs poorly, and Redmond has, as a result, made XP available to hardware companies for another two years.

Linux, on the other hand, because it can do more with fewer resources, is really the better OS candidate for netbooks.  Also, because the machines are designed (and intended) to be used with web-based applications, they are more platform-independent, and thus do not run into the problems that Linux presents on the lawyer desktop (e.g. the lack of compatible verticle market apps like case management and bankruptcy software).   The lack of cost for Linux also keeps the overall price down for netbooks and can make them more attractive.

I have been using the open source Mozilla Firefox web browser for years now and have found it easy to learn and use, which also goes for their e-mail client, Thunderbird.  Google Docs and other web-based apps are already being used by many lawyers, and even if you need an offline solution, OpoenOffice is a great alternative that is easily downloaded and installed on the netbook (at least in the Ubuntu distribution, which is what is being installed on most Linux netbooks).  The learning curve is not steep at all, and the increasing usage of Linux netbooks by lawyers may well overcome the phobia to change and encourage them at least to consider using Linux on their office systems.  We can only hope.

Although I have been a gadget freak for many years (more than I care to admit) I have acknowledged in the past that many tech solutions just don’t have it over pen and paper.  Interestingly enough, Google recently wrestled with this in the Tasks app of their Gmail Suite.  They realized that “despite dual-core CPUs, 30″ monitors, and high speed internet connections, many Googlers still found themselves using paper to track their tasks.”  Their solution is set forth in a February 2 posting to their Gmail Blog that states:

“We set out to fix this by making Tasks available from your phone with a version optimized for the small screen. And starting today, you can manage your task list from your iPhone or Android device, and access it from any xhtml enabled phone.”

If you have an iGoogle page, there is a Gadget for that, so you can add your tasks there.  What would also be great is if there was an iPhone app as well.    They are looking for input, so feel free to post any ideas you might have for this.

This is also in keeping with what I have been reading lately on “cloud computing” and the use of web based services by the mobile lawyer.  One benefit that was pointed out to me was that many of these calendar/task/e-mail net services (like Google Apps and Remember the Milk) sync wirelessly with your phone from anywhere.   Sam Glover talks about this on his Lawyerist blog in a post on how he uses these apps in his office.   It’s an interesting read.  Note also that the web task-list app Remember the Milk DOES have an iPhone app.  All of this is certainly well worth looking into.

UPDATE (2-13-09): For another example of how Internet based apps can help the road warrior by sync’ing calendar, contacts, and to-dos wirelessly to mobile devices, see this post on the Linux Law Office blog about Yahoo’s Zimbra.

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