GPSolo Magazine - December 2003

PDAs

By Ross L. Kodner

When handheld computers first arrived on the market, lawyers used to burn up more than a few otherwise billable hours agonizing about who in the practice needed (i.e., deserved) one. Did Lawyer A travel enough to justify the expense? Was Lawyer B techno-savvy enough to know how to use it? By now, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) have proven themselves such an advantage that no one need debate the purchase—just do it.

One of the best reasons to use a PDA is that it broadens the accessibility of the software programs you run in your office. Many lawyers use a PC-based calendaring and contacts system—perhaps Microsoft Outlook. An increasing number of others have switched to multifaceted legal case management systems. Before getting into the type of PDAs available, you should review the following questions:
  • What office software would you want to synchronize with a PDA?
  • Do you want Internet and e-mail access?
  • Will you use the device primarily to view information, to enter and update information, or both?
  • Do you want a portable keyboard available, or will you use a stylus?
  • Would you want to combine your cell phone and PDA?
  • Do you need paging capabilities?
  • Aside from the calendar, contacts, and tasks list, will you want to view any other information?
  • Do you want or need to take photos?
  • What is your budget?
  • Do you need PDA operating system compatibility (i.e., the Palm operating system vs. Microsoft’s Pocket PC system)?
  • Are you tired of carrying separate PDA, cell phone, pager, and Blackberry-type e-mail device?

Now you’re ready to go shopping. The two primary operating systems (OS) made for PC-compatible PDAs are Palm and Microsoft Pocket PC. Palm (www.palm.com) has the largest market share (some estimate three or four to one), which means it offers more software applications; and many legal-specific software applications synchronize only with the Palm OS, especially case management software. If you are most familiar with Microsoft software (Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint), you might be most comfortable with a Pocket PC (www.microsoft.com/windowsmobile/products/pocketpc). If you’re not an Outlook user or if you’re contemplating moving to a legal case manager in the future, the Palm world may be for you.

As mentioned, the price range in handhelds is quite broad. If budget is your main concern, review the following summaries of what you pay and what you get.

Budget.

It is possible to acquire a Palm-sized device for under $100. Palm’s Zire model is a no-frills basic PDA with a limited amount of non-expandable memory and a monochrome LCD display (the two primary cost-cutting elements in any handheld). But most lawyers will be quite satisfied with this model—and certainly more productive than without one.

Midmarket.

The range of PDAs costing between $200 and $500 is huge. Companies like Palm, Sony, and Handspring offer many models, generally with color displays, fast processors, and increased standard memory (expandable with memory cards). Some units have built-in “thumb boards” for entering text more easily. Standouts include most models in Sony’s Clie series (www.sony.com) and Palm Tungsten products. The “sleeper” in this category is the sub-$300 Palm Zire 71—an inexpensive but full-featured device. These are the units most lawyers should buy and use.

High end.

These units, at $500 and up, offer bells and whistles galore: digital camera, more memory, MP3 players, and even a cell phone. Do most lawyers “need” these capabilities? Probably not, but “need” and “want” are so easily confused. . . . The Sony UX-50 is a standout, with a large color display and the largest built-in keyboard on any PDA.

Convergence: One device does it all.

The latest trend in PDAs combines all your portable gadgets into one compact, convenient package. Cell phone, PDA, wireless e-mail, Internet access, paging—it makes a great deal of sense. Once you sign on to the convergence bandwagon, you’re not likely to go back. These units typically are offered by cell phone providers, who also provide the phone and wireless data service plans. The devices themselves tend to look either like phones or like PDAs, only more so. Kyocera (http://global.kyocera.com) and Samsung (www.samsung.com) are the leaders in “phone first, PDA second” units; Handspring and Palm offer top choices in the “PDA first, phone second” category. Expect to pay $400 and up for the convenience—in the words of one young lawyer, “It is soooo worth it!”

Every—yes, every—lawyer should have a handheld assistant. Trust us—this will be the best $500 (or less) you ever spent on technology. The elegant simplicity of these devices literally will enable you to shake hands with the future.

Ross L. Kodner, an attorney, is president of MicroLaw, Inc., a national legal technology consultancy based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached at rkodner@microlaw.com.

 

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