By Joe Kashi
During the past year, some established legal automation technologies and computer hardware have developed to the point that they've become finally quite attractive and cost-effective. Here are my picks for 2002.
Voice recognition technology has always seemed to be a technology whose easy application is just around the corner, a corner that previously seems to be always just beyond reach. With the introduction of IBM and ViaVoice professional version 8, the early promise of voice recognition technology as a means to increase productivity and to decrease office overhead has finally reached fruition.
IBM ViaVoice Professional Version 8 is a significant improvement upon earlier releases of this program and, to me, seems to be more accurate than its main competitor, Dragon Dictate. Correction with ViaVoice is finally easy and swift and the program's language model continues to constantly readjust itself not only to your pronunciation but also to your writing style. Although no voice recognition program is perfect-indeed, we find that the voice recognition output requires the most careful editing-ViaVoice has reached a level of usefulness where it's suitable for everyday use in the law office. I find that dictating into ViaVoice is sufficiently straightforward that it seems to facilitate thinking for persons like myself whose first drafts consist of thinking out loud rather than keyboarding. ViaVoice is one of those few 'enabling' technologies that can make a real dent upon law office overhead and I found that using ViaVoice for routine dictation, even without mastering its powerful macro capabilities, allowed me to reduce clerical staffing, with resultant savings.
Expect to spend several hours training ViaVoice to correctly interpret your peculiar speech patterns and another day or two learning how to set up macros to automatically bring up preaddressed letters and case styles. One of ViaVoice's primary in advantages is its use of a relatively sophisticated language model that results in generally more accurate context-sensitive speech recognition and more accurate recognition of correct homonyms . Voice recognition finally works in real time, with the output visible on the screen almost immediately after you dictate each word - if you have a sufficiently fast computer.
COST-EFFECTIVE DESKTOP COMPUTERS
Effective real time voice recognition technology is processor-intensive and requires what would have been serious, essentially unobtainable desktop computing power only a year or two ago. With the recent rapid decline in hardware prices and a nearly unprecedented increase an entry level computing performance, new mid-level desktop computer systems are generally more than fast enough. If you're considering the purchase of a cost-effective and highly effective new system, then I suggest that you look for a system that meets these criteria. You may need to custom order such a system, but it should not cost you more than $800 or so, not including video display.
a. AMD 1.4 gigahertz or faster processor with a matching system board and that includes the ability to use DDR memory. More advanced system boards readily available the retail level enable you to add to your own desktop computer a second matched hard disk as part of a RAID disk array, redundant data protection technology that previously was very expensive and complex to implement. With 40 GB IBM hard disks costing perhaps $140 retail, protecting your data against hard disk failure makes a lot of sense.
b. Not less than 256 MB of 266 MHz double data rate memory. If possible, upgrade any new computer to 512 MB of 266 MB DDR memory -- voice recognition is very memory-intensive. It's amazingly inexpensive to add another 256 MB at this time. Despite its apparently slower clock rate, DDR memory works just as fast as the much more expensive RDRAM RAMBUS memory used in Pentium 4 computers.
c. A good 7200 rpm UDMA mode 5 hard disk with 100 MB per second data transfer rate. I prefer IBM's hard drives for their generally excellent reliability and good performance. If you use two hard disks as part of a RAID disk array, then mount at least one of these drives in an inexpensive removable disk carrier - you can take one home with you at night as an inexpensive means of protecting your data against computer theft or casualty loss.
d. A capability to use the USB 2 packaged with ViaVoice Professional. My experience is that microphones connected to ViaVoice Professional through the USB port are more significantly accurate than microphones connected through a traditional sound card. If you're using the USB microphone connection, then you'll not need an exceptionally expensive sound card.
e. Unless you're heavily into video games, then any 8 MB or better ATI or similar quality video card will be more than adequate.
f. Modems and networking cards are, at this point, essentially generic products, almost all which work more than adequately.
g. Good quality UDMA CD-ROM drives are inexpensive and ubiquitous. Spending another $80 or so by say CD ROM writer, a useful adjunct in this era of very large files.
h. Sadly, hard disk capacity has far exceeded the current copy of backup tape drives priced for use with individual desktop computers. Tape drives are necessary -- they're the only realistic and secure way to back and archive data. CD writers simply don't have the capacity needed to back up today's high-capacity hard disks. Most suitable tape drives may end up costing more than the desktop computer itself. You can, and must, use such a tape drive to back up network data, but the price becomes prohibitive for most desktop users. Among the less expensive drives, Travan NS-20 drives have a 20 GB maximum theoretical capacity for highly compressible data (not the norm) but tend to be slow, somewhat unreliable, and often difficult to use with more advanced operating systems like Windows 2000.
NOTEBOOK COMPUTER SYSTEMS
Along with the general decline in desktop computer prices, notebook computers -- long the most expensive segment of the general PC market -- have similarly tumbled. You'll be able to get a first-class system from any of the best notebook computer system vendors, such as IBM, Fujitsu, Dell or Sony, for $1,200 to $2,000.
A 900-1000 MHz processor and a 20 GB hard disk, power computing hardware essentially unobtainable on even the best desktop system two years ago, are now entry-level notebook computing hardware.
Recently, another attorney in my office decided to purchase a notebook computer system and we researched available options. IBM and Dell certainly had comparable contenders but we settled upon a Fujitsu C series system. $1,900 bought a 1,000 MHz processor, a 40 GB hard disk, 512 MB memory, a combination DVD reader with CD writing capabilities, an excellent 15" TFT color display, internal Ethernet networking and modem, an optional three year warranty, and a spare lithium battery (spare batteries are really needed but not cheap).
Given my own excellent experience with smaller sub-notebook Fujitsu systems, we decided upon the Fujitsu C series. Although the easy portability of a sub-notebook system would have been nice, this system was intended both as a home computer and also for use in court. Under those circumstances, the larger display, longer battery life and built-in CD-ROM drive of the full-sized notebook system became the deciding criteria. Just a few months later, prices for similar systems from first-tier manufacturers such as Dell and IBM had already declined even more.
There are many persons, though, who prefer the easy portability of sub-notebook systems, generally defined as systems weighing 3 pounds or less and measuring perhaps 8" by 10" by 1.2". Of the sub-notebook systems, the Fujitsu B Series and the Sony SRX77 seem to come closest to an ideal balance of features and easy portability. The Sony SRX77 includes not only standard 10/100 Ethernet but also the newly standardized 802.11b wireless Ethernet and includes a CD drive, previously a costly option.
There's now an even smaller class of full featured sub-notebook computers that almost merge into Palm Pilot size. These typically use low powered Crusoe processors and a wide aspect ratio 1280 X 600 screen. The Fujitsu P series system, at an amazingly small 2.2 pounds, recently took Best of Comdex and I am amazed that Fujitsu could pack a full blown DVD/CD drive into such a small form factor. With Windows 2000 Professional and 256 MB, the P series sells for $1,699. A similar model with Windows XP and 128 MB costs $1,499. Truly amazing.
The Sony C1 uses a 733 MHz Crusoe chip and includes high speed IEEE-1394 Firewire peripherals, a 20 GB hard disk, 128-256 MB RAM, and an integrated digital camera. Regardless of whether you buy a sub-notebook or a full size portable computer, be sure to research your purchase thoroughly on the various manufacturers' Internet sites. The general lifespan of portable computer models seems to be about 6 months and specific product recommendations are inevitably obsolete and unobtainable by the time you're likely to purchase a new system. Generally, portable computers are not readily upgradable except to add more memory. I usually plan upon a three to four year replacement cycle, although that's likely to shorten as notebook performance climbs and prices plummet.
Flat panel displays.
For years, flat panel video displays have been touted as the replacement for bulky CRT monitors, but prices always been a significant deterrent to those who did not require the greatly reduced desktop footprint of a flat panel display. Recently, I've seen flat panel displays from Viewsonic, HP and other first tier manufacturers sell for as $330 retail. Quality seems to be generally excellent among the first tier manufacturers and I believe that flat panel displays are now a cost-effective mature technology whose time has come. As a practical matter, there's a very good chance that I'll replace some of our monitors with flat panel displays in the foreseeable future.
Visioneer 8650 scanner.
I've used HP scanners for years, sometimes with mixed results. Recently, I acquired a Visioneer 8750 scanner that combines a flatbed scanner and an automatic document feeder for about 60 percent of the cost of a comparable HP unit. Not only was the Visioneer unit significantly less expensive, but it set up much more easily and worked more reliably. The unit that I received included an earlier version of PaperPort scanning software but an inexpensive upgrade to PaperPort 8 provides greatly expanded capabilities. However, the included software does provide enough options to make it very suitable for home or occasional business usage. Again, a highly recommended package that works well and easily.
This 'Intelligent Document Assembly & Automation' by Data Tech Software, Harrisburg, PA is one of the new breed of document assembly programs designed specifically for Microsoft Word. thinkDOCS provides some good starting templates and a practical and powerful document assembly engine. Although there are a number of good document assembly programs on the market, we like the strong capabilities of thinkDOCS.
Generally speaking, any document assembly program requires a very substantial input, staff time and expense in developing content designed for your particular practice, state of jurisdiction and working style. However, thinkDOCS goes a long way toward reducing the trauma if you are a Microsoft Word user. This program is recommended. You can contact Data Tech Software at www.thinkdocs.com, 1-800-556-7526, fax 717-652-3222, toll voice 1-717-652-4344.
This is a most interesting and rather accurate document summarizing program from Copernic, the purveyor of Copernic 2001, a very efficient means of searching the Web using many different search engines. You can download a free basic version of Copernic at www.copernic.com and purchase products on-line. It works well with MS Word and Web documents.
Much as I hate to admit it, having used WordPerfect since 1984, many of the more useful and powerful add-in programs such as thinkDOCS, ViaVoice and Copernic Summarizer, are primarily designed for Word. At a minimum, it makes sense for any practicing attorney to be comfortable using both Word and WordPerfect, even if you intend to continue using WordPerfect as your primary word processing program.
System suite 4.0.
We'd been fans of Ontrack's utility software for years but the most recent upgrade, System Suite 4, does not seem to add much functionality aside from a software Internet firewall while creating erratic but stubborn problems that sometimes require a complete reinstallation. In some systems, the firewall works unobtrusively and well while on other systems, it makes any Internet access a real problem. For some reason that I haven't fathomed, System Suite 4 precluded use of any Windows 3.1 programs, including billing programs and West Premise legal research software on some systems until the utility suite was completely uninstalled and replaced by the earlier System Suite 3. If you're already using System Suite 3, I recommend avoiding the upgrade for now.
Similarly, I recommend against using Windows XP, at least for the next several months. XP is an entirely new operating system that attempts to combine Microsoft's prior Win9x DOS-based operating systems and Windows 2000, which is based upon a totally different Windows NT core. There have been numerous reports from highly sophisticated users who have found upgrading to XP to be a terribly troublesome experience. Older hardware often doesn't work, driver software for XP is not always available, and there are widespread reports that many programs act strangely or don't run at all.
Upgrading an existing computer to XP seems to be the more troublesome experience but I've seen problems with new XP systems reported in the trade press. Even though it's more expensive, you're probably better off using Windows 2000 Professional for the next year or so until Microsoft gets rid of the inevitable problems with XP.