Tablet computers may seem like new inventions, but Apple - maker of the iPad - began producing the compact MessagePad back in the late 1970s. As it turns out, the first wave of tablets never caught on with the public, and they were soon replaced by bigger, more powerful desktop computers.
Decades later, the world of computing has circled back around. Tablet computers are exploding in popularity, while desktop computers now seem like yesterday's news. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, nearly one in five adults in the United States owns a tablet computer, and Forrester Research predicts that about one in three will own a tablet by 2016.
Attorneys and law firms are jumping on the tablet bandwagon. The most recent survey of law firms by the International Legal Technology Association found that even though technology purchases were down considerably from pre-recession levels, tablet computers remain popular, with about 25 percent of firms planning tablet purchases in the next year. In the United Kingdom, a pilot project to issue tablet computers to prosecutors was recently launched in the hope of one day creating a paperless court system. And one personal injury law firm in Arizona has distributed iPads to 20 of its major clients to facilitate communication with them and collaboration on courtroom presentations.
It's no surprise that attorneys are latching onto tablets - these devices offer several features that are particularly useful for the practice of law. For the attorney on the go, it's hard to beat a tablet computer. The iPad weighs a scant 1.44 pounds and takes up less space on a desk than a sheet of paper. Many laptops, by contrast, weigh five pounds or more, and a power adapter can tack on a few more pounds. Lawyers who routinely lug their computers to court appreciate the difference that weight can make.
Of equal importance to legal practitioners is the speed at which a computer is ready for use. Laptops may be slow to wake up from sleep mode, but most tablets bolt into action almost immediately. The iPad's Instant On feature lets it spring to life the second the user touches the Home button.
Tablets boast another attorney-friendly feature: their "form factor" - that is, their size, shape, and functionality. During a trial or an interview it's much less distracting to consult a small, flat tablet computer than it is to snap open a laptop and begin tapping away. In the digital world, using a tablet computer is the closest thing to working with pen and paper, and it allows the user to focus on the legal matter at hand rather than the device being used.
Tablet owners have access to thousands of useful applications that have been created especially for these devices. Practically all of the best legal apps for smartphones now have an iPad or Android tablet version, and because tablets' screen size is considerably larger than that of cell phones, their apps are easier to navigate and often have more extensive features.
For newcomers looking to jump into the tablet world, the first question is: iPad or not? There are certainly compelling arguments in favor of the iPad - not by accident has it become by far the most popular tablet on the market. (Even before it released updated models in March, Apple's iPad controlled a hefty 73 percent of the tablet market, according to Forrester Research, easily outdistancing its closest rival, HP, with 6 percent. The survey was taken before Amazon's November release of its Kindle Fire tablet, the latest iPad rival.)
Apple's latest iPad models added several improvements: more power, a better screen, an improved camera, and an optional 4G Internet connection. The supersharp HD display is the most significant upgrade - its resolution is about 50 percent better than a high definition TV.
The chief drawback of the iPad is its price. The third-generation iPad starts at $499 for the basic 16GB model, rising to $829 for the most expensive 64GB model with 4G capability. (Apple has cut the price of its iPad 2 to start at $399.)
But the bright and shiny iPad isn't the only game in Tablet Town - there are more than a few worthy rivals. Amazon's Kindle Fire is a relative bargain at about $200. The top-of-the-line model is a sleek tablet with links to the online retailer's impressive collection of digital music, video, and magazine and book services, offering a nimble Web browser as well.
However, the Kindle lacks some of the high-end features that make the iPad a true on-the-job alternative. The Kindle has no 3G wireless capability, camera, microphone, or GPS function, and its app selection doesn't come close to matching Apple's or Android's. For now, the Fire is better for diversions like digital books and movies than it is for the practice of law.
Far more useful are the tablets that run on Google's Android operating system. Many offer advantages that rival those of the iPad, including healthy repositories of legal apps. And nearly all Android tablets cost less than the premium price the iPad demands.
For example, Samsung's compact Galaxy Tab 7.0 Plus (about $300 online) includes such features as 16GB of built-in memory, a high-resolution screen, and a fast dual-core processor. It also has cameras suited for attorneys who want to videoconference with colleagues or clients. Another Android tablet, Lenovo's Ideapad A1, is priced even lower (about $235 online), albeit with a slower processor. Acer's seven-inch Iconia tablet (about $280 online) also is packed with high-end features like GPS, front and rear cameras, and a dual-core processor.
Security experts give a slight edge to Apple over Android when it comes to tablets. Because Apple controls its App Store and developer agreements so tightly, there's less chance that a rogue app will make it to market than with the more open-door submission process for Android apps. But the runaway popularity of the iPad worldwide makes it a juicy target for bad guys, so security considerations are probably a wash.
For lawyers and other professionals, tablets are quickly becoming the device that fills the sweet spot in computing: more powerful and easier to navigate than a smartphone, and faster and more portable than a laptop. More than 30 years after its debut, the tablet computer has finally arrived.