Small pieces, loosely joined. The first time I heard that phrase, it was from my friend and previous writer of this column, Steve Matthews, whose able shoes I will try to fill here at Law Practice magazine.
That quote, actually a title of a book by David Weinberger from 2002, is about the Web and its impact on, well, virtually everything. It is also a great turn of phrase to describe the promise of Web 2.0—the point a few years ago when the Internet went from content we passively read to something we actively interact with.
Web 2.0, which as a phrase is slowly retreating as “cloud computing” moves to the fore, permitted users to select a series of discrete services to accomplish their work—the titular “small pieces.” For instance, one might use Google Apps for email and calendar over here, Dropbox for storage and sharing over there, and Toodledo for task management in a third place. One of the many benefits of cloud-based services is that sophisticated software can be used without regard to servers, operating system compatibility or mobile access. It’s the first glimpse over the horizon of the post-PC world we’ve all been hearing so much about.
But all is not wine and roses in the world of cloud software. One significant chink in the armor of the cloud-computing value proposition is the second part of that phrase, “loosely joined.” If an advantage of cloud services is the ability to fashion a custom workflow from a collection of unrelated solutions, then a disadvantage is that all too often information gets trapped in silos of one app or another that offer no interoperability. In other words, the data in your email and calendar might not connect to your storage solution or your task manager.
That gulf between apps creates myriad inefficiencies for a law firm. It causes the same information to be needlessly re-keyed multiple times in different apps. Re-keying a client’s name or address might seem like a small task, but repeat it across hundreds of clients, thousands of times, and that small task can add up to a large waste of time. Time is lost and opportunities for mistakes are multiplied. For lawyers working hard to manage efficient firms, it can be a deal breaker.
Necessity being the mother of invention, as the saying goes, explains why in just the few short years since the advent of Web 2.0, cloud-based software has begun to transition into its next phase, one in which the small pieces tie more closely together. The separate silos of cloud-based apps are now beginning to allow users to set up links between them, so that when something happens in Software A, something else is automatically done in Software B.
Let me explain what I mean
There is a service called “ifttt” (ifttt.com), which is a tongue-twisting acronym for “if this, then that.” Anyone who has studied computer science or logic (finally, something for the philosophy majors!) will recognize that familiar phrase. So, what ifttt does is help users create easy, causative links between various cloud-based services. For example, you can create a link so that when you change your Facebook profile photo, your Twitter and LinkedIn profile photo are also automatically changed. Or, when Amazon adds a new book to the Kindle Top 100 Free eBooks list, an email is sent automatically to alert you.
These links—or “recipes,” as ifttt refers to them—are easy to create, and there are hundreds already created by other users for you to choose from as well.
Similarly, Dropbox—the omnipresent cloud-based storage solution—rolled out the feature Dropbox Automator earlier this year. Automator serves in the same manner as ifttt, but just for your Dropbox account. As of the time of this writing, there are already dozens of nifty little links in Automator, and by the time you are holding this magazine in your hands, that list will likely have expanded. To get a flavor of what Automator can do, you can set it so that when you save a document in a certain Dropbox folder, that document is automatically converted to PDF. Or do it in reverse: Put PDF documents in the folder and have them automatically converted to a text file. Or create a folder for client agreements where every document is automatically converted from Word to PDF and then the PDF version is e-signed.
You get the idea
As promising as all this looks, these links between services are still a far cry from the efficiency a firm picks up through use of a full-blown practice management solution. Happily, the cloud-based practice management products are also quickly moving to create greater integration with a variety of services. For example, early leaders in cloud-based practice management, Clio (goclio.com) and RocketMatter (rocketmatter.com), both feature tight integration with Dropbox. When a user links her Clio or RocketMatter to Dropbox (done at the folder level, with each folder linking to a particular client file), any document is automatically linked to the client file. Clio offers additional integration with the increasingly popular Google Apps, allowing easy, bidirectional sync between contacts and calendar. RocketMatter offers additional integration with the ubiquitous Evernote. Both companies plan additional integrations for the near future.
What we are witnessing is the surprisingly quick evolution of cloud computing as a platform. Now that we already have slick, capable software at our fingertips that can be used simply through a Web browser, the cutting edge has moved to seamless integration between unrelated services. From our vantage point as end-users, we can and should expect continued rapid progress on this front. The progress toward greater integration holds the promise not just for increased efficiency, but for the ability to assemble completely customized productivity rigs on the Web. We will be able to choose our favorite calendar app, storage app and sharing app, and expect these to integrate easily into our practice management solution of choice.
It’s all moving fast, and I’m excited to be able to join you here for a ringside seat in the Web 2.0 column of Law Practice magazine. If “small pieces, loosely joined” is where we’ve been, then “small pieces, custom-arranged and tightly joined” looks like where we’re headed.