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Computer Counselor - February 1998

Eight Computer Choices Lawyers Will Be Making in 1998

A new portable chip, dropping hardware costs, and software ups and downs

By Daryl Teshima

Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly legal technology magazine. 

In legal technology, changes occur so rapidly that many products become outdated just months after they are released. Even if a computer user researches and tests a major purchase for months in advance, it is hard to know if the new system is going to be useful for some time to come or is going to be the technology equivalent of the Edsel. Making the right computing choice often depends on one critical factor that is out of the consumer's control: timing. Technology goes in cycles, and buying at the beginning of a cycle (for example, prior to the release of Windows 95) can put a law firm into a technological cul-de-sac. Compounding the problem is the way that many law firms purchase technology. Typically, computers only get attention when disaster strikes. The primary criteria for a new system becomes how fast the computer can be delivered, or how much it costs, rather than whether it will have a long lifespan. By making purchasing decisions on an as-needed basis, timing is left to chance. 

Even with this caveat in mind, 1998 looks to be the right time for purchasing new systems. The maturation of 32-bit operating systems, combined with a tremendous decrease in hardware prices, has created an opportunity for cost-effective upgrades for many firms. The following expected developments anticipated in 1998 may help lawyers and firms make better decisions. 

The Below-$1,000 Computer 

The most welcome development for computer users is the substantial drop in hardware prices. Individual work stations boasting a Pentium 166 MHz processor with 32 MB of RAM, a CD-ROM drive, and a 2 GB hard drive (more than adequate for most legal professionals) can be found for less than $1,000 without a monitor. These less expensive systems offer increased flexibility and modularity. Since many of these computers have standard components, individual parts can be upgraded or re-placed as needed. Sub-$1,000 systems also have some room for growth, as most of these computers have boards with processor chips and memory that can be upgraded easily. One warning, however: users should make sure that the board they purchase has the Intel TX chip set, because the set can handle an Ultra-DMA hard drive, which is quicker and cheaper than the older E-IDE drive. The Intel TX chip set also can be expected to perform better with many of the enhancements reported to be included in Windows 98 and NT 5.0. 

Voice Dictation Software Matures 

The biggest stir in legal computing circles is being caused by the emergence of voice dictation software. (See last month's Computer Counselor.) Users now have a choice between two powerful speech engines, both of which sell at retail for less than $200. Dragon Systems' NaturallySpeaking package recently won a Best of Comdex award and PC Magazine's Technical Excellence award for software. IBM's ViaVoice family also has powerful features, including Typhoon Software's ViaVoice for WordPerfect, which allows users to give more than 800 Word-Perfect commands orally. Be aware, however, that these programs require a high-end computer system. Users will need, as a minimum, a Pentium 166 MHz MMX processor, 64 MB of RAM, and a SoundBlaster card. In addition to hardware, lawyers will need to train the system to recognize their voices. 

Recording CD-ROMs 

Adaptec's new Easy CD Creator Deluxe Edition finally makes creating CD-ROMs convenient and easy for law firms. In the past, those wishing to record (or "burn") CD-ROMs have created more coasters than usable CDs because of hardware limitations. Adaptec's software package overcomes such problems by using a more efficient burning engine that makes the entire recording process stable and reliable. The catch: the advent of rewritable CDs (CD-ROMs that can be erased and reused) and DVDs may make CD-ROMs obsolete. The current high cost of rewritable CD drives and disks and the lack of home DVD recording technology means, however, that computer users will continue using CD-ROMs for a few more years. 

Legal Research: Pricing Worries 

The recent series of legal publishing mergers left many wondering whether large price hikes would follow. On the contrary, legal research pricing has become even more competitive. Both large and small firms can obtain CD-ROMs that have full-text searching of California case law and statutes. Thanks in part to the impact of Internet primary law providers such as V. and Lois, Westlaw's and Lexis-Nexis's online prices have dropped dramatically. Despite a smaller number of legal publishers, attorneys today have a greater variety of price packages, choices, and formats than ever before. The warning: with less competition among legal publishers, the threat of higher legal research prices continues to exist. 

Notebooks: Wait for Tillamook 

The bane of many legal road warriors is the shortness of a notebook computer's battery life. Despite the development of the new lithium-ion batteries, the interiors of airplanes and courtrooms continue to be filled with the chirps and beeps of notebooks warning that their batteries are nearly drained. In response to this problem, Intel plans on releasing its Tillamook chip later this year, which will sport Pentium power and more efficient battery and power management. Users who are planning to buy a notebook should wait for the release of this new chip and insist that it be installed in their new portables. The flip side: as is true with any impending release of new technology as significant as the Tillamook chip, the old technology is going to be priced to sell. Existing notebooks will be marked down, so users should be able to find some great deals if they decide that they cannot wait. 

Windows 98 

Conventional wisdom in most law firms (and most businesses) dictates that users should wait for the second release of most software before adding it to their computer systems. Accordingly, many law firms will view the mid-1998 release of Windows 98 as a time to switch to a 32-bit operating system. In reality, this switch is not a bad idea, because Windows 98 will support nearly all hardware and software being produced today. The transition to Windows 98, especially for those using Windows 95, will be relatively painless. Many new computer systems sold today actually have a number of Windows 98 features, including a more efficient hard drive formatting scheme (FAT 32), integration of Internet Explorer 4.0 into Windows Explorer, and support for new technologies such as Universal Serial Bus, Advanced Graphics Port, and Ultra-DMA. The hitch: users need to be aware that Windows 98 is a dead end as an operating system. The next major operating system release after Windows 98 is expected to be Windows NT 5.0, which Microsoft will position as the operating system for the year 2000 and after. No future version of Windows will be able to run DOS and Windows 16-bit programs. 

Word v. WordPerfect 

For the last two years, the big technology question for many attorneys has been choosing between Word and WordPerfect. Adding to the confusion has been the annual office suite releases from Microsoft and Corel, making this choice even harder to analyze. The waters should calm quite a bit in 1998, as only bug fixes and conversion utilities are expected for Word and WordPerfect, so those who have not already chosen one of these two main contenders should know that now is a good time to choose. Users should be aware, however, that Corel expects to publish a 32-bit version of its Legal Suite, which reportedly will have a continuous speech dictation engine bundled in the package. No Pull for Push Technology 

The most hyped feature for the new releases of Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator is push technology, which delivers content to a user's desktop on a periodic basis, turning a computer screen into a kind of continual news source that displays such information as stock quotes, sports scores, and headline news, according to the user's preferences. Push technology is a great idea, but it can prove troublesome to users who connect to the Internet using analog phone lines and modems. After installation of push components, many users find that their computers have become possessed by slowness demons. The push technology makes calls to users' Internet providers automatically, and users who are trying to push a brief out of the system while the computer is downloading the latest sugar beet futures prices may find themselves growing quite frustrated. When Internet connections become faster, the problem associated with push technology will disappear. Until then, users should push push technology out of their systems. Mailing lists remain a good alternative. However, if a firm has Internet bandwidth to spare, push technology may a good way to obtain information from the Internet. 

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