[The following is the first of a three-part series of columns about Web 2.0 for lawyers originally published almost a year ago in the August, September and October 2006 issues of Law Technology News. Because I receive so many requests for this series, I am republishing it here. I originally intended it to be two parts, but expanded it to three because there was so much to cover.
Important note: I have not updated these since writing them nearly a year ago. Most of the sites remain as described, but some have changed. Notably, the first site reviewed in this column, Writely, is now incorporated into Google Docs. Some others, such as Rallypoint in this column, appear to be defunct.]
It is the Web’s second coming – at least so say the apostles of Web 2.0, the so-called second generation of Web-based products and services that emerged in the wake of the dot-com collapse.
Web 2.0 sites often bear a close resemblance to desktop applications but with the Web as their platform. Word processors, calendars and spreadsheets are just some of the traditional desktop applications offered online under the Web 2.0 rubric.
Why use the Web as your platform instead of your desktop? For lawyers, the strongest reason is collaboration. Lawyers working jointly on a project – whether across town or across continents – derive enormous value in being able to work together in a platform- and location-neutral environment.
Credit goes to Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media for popularizing the Web 2.0 concept, and he describes the collaborative nature of these sites as “harnessing collective intelligence.” It is something even lawyers can use more of.
Another benefit for lawyers is freedom from software purchases and upgrades. Many Web 2.0 sites cost nothing and their upgrades are seamless and transparent to their users.
Less tangible but equally important, Web 2.0 sites tend to be the most innovative on the Web. The usefulness of their innovations may be obvious in certain contexts, while in fields such as law, they may be less so. It will take innovative lawyers to explore fully the application of Web 2.0 to law practice.
That said, this three-part column presents an overview of noteworthy Web 2.0 products and services of interest to the legal profession. This first part looks at common office tools, including word processors, spreadsheets and calendars. The next part will look beyond the desktop, at mashups, mind mappers and other cutting-edge applications.
Of Web 2.0 products that emulate those on your desktop, the most striking examples are word processors. The best known of these, thanks to Google’s acquisition of it in March, is Writely. Writely is a browser-based, WYSIWYG word processor that looks and feels much the same as the one on your desktop. The difference is that you can easily collaborate on and share documents with others, access your documents from anywhere and store them online. Create documents from scratch or edit most common formats.
At this writing, Writely is closed to new registrants while it moves to Google’s systems. You can add your name to a waitlist, or try one of the other Web-based word processors. Among them:
- WideWORD. This free document editing and collaboration service features high levels of security and encryption, along with version control and comments on documents.
- Writeboard. This document-collaboration site features shareable text documents that let you save every edit, roll back to any version and easily compare changes. Every edit creates a new version, so nothing is lost.
- Zoho Writer. Create documents or import them from Microsoft Word and OpenOffice. Export documents as PDF, DOC and HTML files. Post documents directly to your blog.
- Rallypoint. Describes itself as combining the features of a word processor with the collaborative abilities of a wiki. It allows you to create and share pages and decide who has access and at what level. Tag pages to organize them and search using the built-in search engine.
Another common office application now online is the spreadsheet. A beta version of Google Spreadsheets is earning high marks. Unfortunately, it has a waitlist for sign-ups. Sophisticated users will find it less powerful than desktop programs. But for collaboration, sharing and online storage, it is a surprisingly full-featured program. Use it to create spreadsheets or import from XLS and CSV data.
Other online spreadsheets include:
- iRows. Includes functions to create charts and to convert to HTML pages.
- NumSum. This free services allows for sharing and tagging of spreadsheets.
A handful of companies now offer suites of office tools comparable to those you would buy for your desktop. They combine word processing, spreadsheets and graphical presentation applications.
One such suite is ThinkFree, which allows you to create Microsoft Office-compatible documents, spreadsheets and presentations. The service is free and comes with the added bonus of 1GB free file storage. This means you can work on any documents from any computer and share it with others. It includes version control and roll back.
Another, Zoho Office Suite, goes a step beyond ThinkFree. In addition to document, spreadsheet and presentation tools, it offers a “Virtual Office” of group e-mail, group and individual calendaring, document sharing and instant messaging. Zoho’s word processor and other office tools are free. Its Virtual Office is free for up to 10 users, then priced starting at $295 a year.
Google has a knack for launching a product and quickly becoming the category killer. Such is the case with its Web-based calendar, Google Calendar. It is easy to share, easy to search and easy to integrate with other Google products such as Gmail and the Google Desktop. A recent upgrade allows you to access the calendar from your mobile phone and publish it to your Web page.
Other online calendars include:
- HipCal.com. Hipcal provides a free online calendar, to-do list and address book, as well as group calendaring. It was acquired in May by Plaxo, the company that provides a service for managing and updating contacts.
- Planzo.com. Planzo is a simple, sharable calendar that allows you to track events, write to-do lists, upload and share files, and more. A nice feature is the morning e-mail it sends you with a digest of your day’s events.
- CalendarHub. Free individual and group calendars. Calendars include RSS fees.
A variation on these is Upcoming, which describes itself as a collaborative, social-event calendar. Use it to keep track of and comment on events you or others will attend.
Part 2: Tools for file sharing, bookmarking, project management, graphing, mapping an