The Shape of Things to Come
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The Shape of Things to Come

December 2011

The year 2012 promises to be interesting, featuring a presidential election and, according to some readers of Mayan prophesy, the end of the world. Assuming the doomsayers are wrong, the year in technology stands to be intriguing as well, with the launch of new smartphones, an emerging category of software for extending e-discovery to social networks, and faster and cheaper tablet computers.

Smartphones Get Smarter
Not so long ago, the legal trade chugged along just fine without smartphones. But today they have become nearly as commonplace at law firms as yellow legal pads and disgruntled associates. According to the ABA's 2011 Legal Technology Resource Center survey, 88 percent of lawyers use a smartphone for job-related tasks while away from their primary workplace, up nearly 10 percent from the previous year. And in large firms with 100 or more lawyers, it's up to 98 percent. (No word on who makes up the remaining 2 percent, but my guess is that they're partners.)

So the question facing most lawyers next year isn't whether to get a smartphone, but which one to choose. And for many attorneys, the real question is: Should I keep my BlackBerry, or replace it with an Apple iPhone or an Android phone? Even though iPhones and Androids seem to get more buzz these days, the faithful BlackBerry remains the most popular choice among attorneys: Of the lawyers who report using a smartphone, 46 percent have a BlackBerry, 35 percent have an iPhone, 17 percent use the Android operating system, and 3 percent use Windows Mobile, according to the ABA tech survey.

But iPhones and Android phones continue to gain ground on BlackBerrys, and it's not hard to see why. Besides being stylish and easy to use, the latest models have improved security features, excellent Web capabilities, and a growing raft of legal apps. The newest Apple smartphone, the iPhone 4S ($199 to $399 with a contract, in 16GB to 64GB versions), is an incremental improvement over its predecessor, featuring a dual chip for faster graphics display and navigation and a higher resolution, 8 megapixel camera. It also features a new voice command system called Siri that lets users speak into the phone to perform common tasks such as sending text messages, downloading emails, and getting directions. So if you have an iPhone 3G or an older model, or a year-old BlackBerry, the iPhone 4S is probably worth the upgrade.

But what about BlackBerry? Research in Motion, its Canadian manufacturer, plans to introduce a new operating system that the company hopes will win back market share it's lost to Apple and Android and encourage developers to create more apps. But the company is in trouble on multiple fronts. Its stock lost about two-thirds of its value in just eight months this year, its service suffered an embarrassing global outage in October, its U.S. market share fell to single digits in the third quarter, and the firm is rumored to be a takeover target. A lot rides on how well BlackBerry's new operating system is received. If it allows the brand to regain its stride, BlackBerry owners can be reasonably assured that their phones will be supported well into the future. But if the new OS bombs, BlackBerry could become the new WordPerfect of smartphones - a technology considered outmoded by just about everyone ... except lawyers.

E-Discovery Gets Social
With more than 800 million active users worldwide, Facebook is the planet's most popular social network - and it's quickly become a treasure trove for attorneys engaged in electronic discovery as well. So it's no surprise that a new category of software has sprung up that can comb through reams of Facebook posts, Twitter tweets, and LinkedIn updates to uncover relevant evidence that can stand up in court.

This fall the Pasadena-based legal software firm X1 Discovery [www.x1discovery.com] released X1 Social Discovery, a program that collects, searches, authenticates, and reviews data from popular social media sites. The company says the software establishes a defensible chain of custody from search and collection through production, while preserving metadata (about the context of the data files), which is not possible through traditional image capture or with printouts. That's important because as social media evidence becomes relevant in an increasing number of legal disputes, evidentiary authentication remains a challenge.

Other tech companies are also addressing the proper archiving of social media information. Massachusetts-based Sonian [www.sonian.com] offers a cloud-powered archiving service that encompasses users' social media and instant messaging communications so companies can comply with regulatory mandates such as those from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Another provider, Applied Discovery [www.applieddiscovery.com], part of LexisNexis, offers consulting services designed to help clients review social media as they conduct electronic discovery.

The social discovery software niche is likely to attract more players in 2012, due to the staggering breadth of discoverable information that can be gleaned from people's social media sites. For example, the fact that Facebook's privacy settings are opaque at best exposes plenty of users' private information to snooping.

Year of the Affordable Tablet
For a lot of attorneys, 2012 may be the year they finally buy a tablet computer, thanks to increasingly competitive pricing.

Though Apple will likely continue to sell its iPad at a premium (prices currently start at $499), other tablet makers are slashing prices. Amazon's new $199 Kindle Fire is leading the way. The Fire is a true tablet computer, letting users not only read e-books and watch videos but also surf the Web via a speedy new browser called Silk. Silk stores information about your Web usage patterns so it can begin delivering a Web page even before you click on the link.

Some lawyers swear by their tablet computers, praising their portability and the quick access to files they offer. At the same time, they're less distracting to jurors than a laptop when brought into a courtroom. With other tablet makers sure to follow Amazon's lead in cutting prices, tablet computers could truly become a mainstream device in 2012. Unless the Mayan prophecies turn out to be right - then all bets are off.

In today's law firms, smartphones have become nearly as commonplace as yellow legal pads and disgruntled associates.

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