Numerous movies have portrayed a future with electronic newspapers, videoconferencing on our watches, and computers plugged into the back of our skulls. These visions are now becoming a reality (well, not the part about our skulls) thanks to tablets, Skype smartphone apps, and Siri voice command—all fueled by the always-on Internet.
But technology encounters defiant resistance when it ventures into the world of law. Lawyers are trained to be professional skeptics, so it naturally follows that we will question anything that promises to free us from our desk-bound tasks. Two recent trends, however, are helping to make us believers: the proliferation of mobile devices (tablets and smartphones) and the phantasmagorical “cloud.”
Take Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning
When we mention “tablets” today, we really mean the Apple iPad, which single-handedly jump-started the previously waning niche market of computers known as “tablet PCs.”
One of the benefits of the iPad’s design is that it mimics the act of holding a piece of paper in your hand (albeit a bit heavier). The iPad easily rotates into “portrait” mode, which is taller than it is wide, in stark contrast to every computer monitor that is wider than it is tall and only shows half a page.
The iPad turns on instantly—no need for a lengthy boot-up process. It can always be connected to the Internet, negating the need to search for a Wi-Fi hot spot.
More important for lawyers, the iPad can hold a tremendous number of PDF files and Word documents. And when you can’t get the information you need from static files, the iPad allows you to jump online to visit research sites or Google.
The iPad Is Not Meant to Replace Your Laptop
Many people think the iPad could replace their computer because it can do so much. It would be convenient if you could just take the iPad with you rather than lugging around a laptop.
But the iPad is not meant to be a replacement for your laptop. It is another device that you carry along with your computer and smartphone. You wouldn’t dare leave home today without your mobile phone, but five to ten years ago, it was ridiculous to think that we needed a phone with us all the time.
But what if the iPad could take the place of some other items that you always carry—say, that yellow legal pad and your tattered folder stuffed with documents? What if you didn’t need to carry a heavy briefcase because all of the documents you needed for a client visit were accessible directly on the iPad?
In the next several years, the iPad and other tablet devices will get faster and thinner. The screen resolution will improve to the point where you can’t tell the difference between a “real” piece of paper and its digital equivalent. Storage capacity will grow and battery life will lengthen. And the rigid “tablet” will give way to flexible, bendable plastic that will feel like holding a stiff piece of paper.
Taking the “Personal” Out of the Personal Computer
The idea of carrying around so much information on a flexible piece of plastic might make some of us nervous, but that’s only if we continue to subscribe to the antiquated notion of a “personal” computer.
I’m not referring to the difference between a PC and Mac. I’m talking about the current concept of a “personal” machine (laptop or desktop) that sits on our desk and is the “focus” of all our work. For example, it’s a common thing to say “I’ll send you that document once I get back to my office,” meaning that the document only exists on the computer that sits on our desk.
But the iPad and tablet computers free us from the tether of the office. Tablet devices will become so ubiquitous that we can use any device connected to the Internet because all of the information we need will be stored “in the cloud.”
Mostly Cloudy and Sunny
A paper document that sits in a file cabinet is insecure, vulnerable, and inefficient. The same document digitally stored in the cloud is secure, backed up, and accessible from anywhere.
The cloud also offers software as a service (SaaS), which completely negates the need to purchase bloated software packages that must be installed, upgraded, and maintained on multiple computers.
Rather, the cloud gives us access to software through a web browser, meaning that any device that can connect to the Internet becomes an access point for all the software we need—word processing, time and billing, practice management, document management, financial information, client contacts, firm calendar, etc.
All this means we are no longer tethered to a physical location for us to fully and completely support our clients. Wherever we are, we can bring up client files, edit documents, e-file motions, and sign documents. We can dictate on our smartphones, have clients sign documents on our iPads, and record our time right over the Internet.
What’s the IQ of Your Smartphone?
It’s not just tablets that are getting more adroit—the “smartphone” is becoming a Swiss Army knife of tools that support our daily tasks. You wouldn’t compose a document on a smartphone (without hand cramps at least), but you can use it for checking and replying to e-mail, surfing the web, accessing GPS-enabled maps, snapping pictures, recording video, setting alarm clocks, creating calendar appointments, taking notes, checking sports scores, and myriad other uses.
And now that the iPhone has Siri, the science fiction future is becoming a reality. The fact that you can talk to your iPhone in a “natural” language and it understands you is finally helping us to realize that elusive goal of voice commands and voice recognition. There is no doubt that this technology will continue to improve and get better at understanding the human language. Eventually, we’ll all be dictating to our iPhones and iPads instead of typing. We’ll always have the option to type when necessary, but so many of us can dictate faster than we can type.
The future promises freedom from our desks. Tablets and smartphones will become our primary means of accessing client information. The cloud will offer unbridled access to all the software we need for managing our practice. We may not yet be at the point where we need to plug computers into the back of our heads, but there is no denying that technology is continuing to shape our world and our practices.