Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Mobile App Dilemma for Legal IT

Behold the iPad in All Its Glory.Image via Wikipedia
The opinions presented in this post are my own, and do not reflect those of my employer.

There is no question that mobile technologies such as smartphones, tablets and netbook sized computers have changed the way IT must think about the technology they provide. It is no longer enough to think about how an application or service will run on a Windows desktop or laptop computer. We must consider how to make a similar experience available to our clients on a device they can carry in the palm of their hand. If we cannot replicate the experience, we must endeavor to provide access to the same information.

I think these challenges are especially hard for IT departments in the legal industry that have spent the past decade or more building up a staff that is knowledgeable about Microsoft Office, iManage, document comparison and table of authorities generation. It is quite a radical shift to no longer think about how to provide a service like metadata cleaning just through Outlook, but through the Blackberry, iPad and multiple Android devices as well. IT has not been immune to staffing changes through the economic down turn, and must make due with less staff. The pace of technology change, it would seem, forgot to slow down with the economy.

We are past the time where we can argue whether or not we need to get into the "mobile mindset". Mobile devices are here to stay and will only continue to increase in numbers, and variety.  The challenge now is to decide which path we walk down in mobile. There are really two choices we can make:

  1. Develop web based applications.
  2. Develop device specific applications.
Neither of these choices are ideal for legal IT staff as they both will require the acquisition of skills not currently available in the department. Neither choice is clearly superior to the other, each offering a unique set of benefits and challenges. Web applications should run on most modern smart phones, meaning that coding can be done once for all devices. However, web apps need to be written using the newest HTML 5 standards in order to provide even a fraction of the functionality that native apps can provide. Device specific apps have the opposite issues. They are great for building rich, data driven applications but you need to write a different app for each platform. Cash and time strapped IT departments will have a hard time making that work. I think it is a real problem that will require a fair bit of discussion internally to determine the right path to walk down.

I don't know that I have a great solution to this problem, but I do have a couple of points I would like to raise.
  • Blackberry Rules: Regardless of how fast the iPad and other devices rise in legal, the Blackberry is still the king. A mix of familiarity, a great keyboard, and easy enterprise integration make this device the undisputed leader in terms of smartphones in legal. I don't hold out great hope for the Blackberry Playbook, but I think we will see some firms adopt them. With this in mind, the solutions that IT provides should work on the Blackberry. The legal IT community should encourage vendors to focus development efforts on the Blackberry (at the very least). 
  • Web Apps: Where possible we should be looking to see how we can use native web apps to meet our mobile needs. We should encourage vendors to do the same. There are some good examples of web apps right now that provide an amazing UI experience in the browser. If you have not checked out PostPost I suggest you do. They have done amazing things in the browser for displaying Facebook information. Use Google Chrome if you can to see what they have done with the UI there, quite impressive. I have talked to a couple of vendors that understand the need to keep things web native, even for them developing for iOs, Blackberry and Android is too cumbersome. Legal IT needs to encourage vendors to move down this path.
  • iPad Fevor: There is no doubt that the iPad is the king of the tablet space right now. I think we need to be cautious though that we do not put too much emphasis on one device. I would be surprised to see even 20% of lawyers using a iPad for work at any given firm, likely far less. I fear that if legal IT puts too much focus on the iPad vendors will see that as a sign to push development efforts in that one direction. I think that is a bad move for legal in the long run.
I am excited to see the sessions for this years ILTA conference. I am hopeful that we will see sessions covering the issues of mobile development, and see some new mobile offerings from vendors. I also hope that sessions do not focus too heavily on any single device. The iPad is a great tool, but it is not the only tool. I would love to come back with some information on how to use mobile technology in the legal industry, iPad or not.

It is my intention to start posting more articles of interest to me professionally. That is not something I have done much, but I think it is time. Expect to see more short articles of interest to those in the legal technology field over the coming weeks and months. Use the legal IT tag to find these posts. I will include a feed link on my Subscribe page in the next couple of days.

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