Attorney Computer Systems Blogs

Sony Digital Paper, A Useful Tool

Michigan Bar Journal - November 2014:

As a child I thought my Swiss Army Knife was the most useful tool in the world. Packaged into one device were knives, a screwdriver, a can opener, a pair of scissors, a fork, a nail file, a toothpick, and, my personal favorite, a corkscrew.

As a nine-year-old scout, I used to sit and think of all of the awesome things I could do with this incredible tool. I would dream up situations where this knife could get me out of a tight jam and maybe even save my life. Perhaps one day I would be marooned on an island and, with this device, I could still enjoy the comforts of civilization with my fork, knife, and toothpick. If I was lost in the desert, I could rig some contraption that may help me collect water and save myself from dying from dehydration.

The reality is that while I could do many things with this marvel of all marvels, I never did. If we are really being honest with ourselves we would acknowledge that this Swiss Army Knife had a collection of things you would only use if it were the last option available to you. Why use a two-inch pair of scissors when you can have a real pair of scissors? Why use a tiny, weird little fork when you could just walk over to the forks and grab a real fork? This knife was a collection of bad options that technically would work, but which provided no enjoyable experience. The only way you would use this knife for these other auxiliary functions would be in situations where you literally had no other good options.

Tablets today are like this for lawyers. Tablets are great for taking pictures, keeping up with email, browsing the internet, reviewing documents, making minor edits to documents, and many other great functions lawyers need and want. However, while tablets do many things incredibly well, there are still many core-functions where they fall short — most notably, taking notes.

No matter how technologically advanced our workplace becomes, you still see lawyers everywhere sporting the same sleek, classic tool — the legal pad. Yes, when it comes to taking notes in a meeting there is just something special about taking notes with a fine-pointed pen on a physical pad of paper. I see it everyday, and I suspect you do too. However, physical paper does not connect with the electronic systems you rely upon each and every day. It would need to be typed up and entered into something in order for it to be truly useful.

Enter Digital Paper from Sony. It’s a tablet, but like none you’ve ever seen before. It doesn’t take pictures. It doesn’t play games. It doesn’t do email. It doesn’t tell you where to get a triple latte skim. It doesn’t remind you to pickup milk and bread on the way home from work. It doesn’t even surf the web. It does, however, give you the functionality and feel of physical paper combined with the connectivity and archival abilities of a connected tablet.

Yes, it is literally the electronic equivalent of a legal pad. It does one thing, and it does it with a level of elegance we don’t often see in non-Apple products. It is the exact opposite of my childhood Swiss Army Knife. It does not try to be a jack-of-all-trades; it is the master of one thing — being a beautifully functional digital paper device.

So what exactly does it do?

One of the finer points of this device is its included fine-point stylus which allows you to take notes and annotate PDF’s far better than any other device I have ever seen. Many other devices allow you to write with a stylus, but your writing ends up fat like you’re writing with a permanent marker.

In addition to handwritten annotations directly on your PDF’s and notes, you can also add sticky notes that are either handwritten or typed. You can also open multiple notes and documents into your workspace and switch between them quickly. This allows you to arrange and work with items in much the same fashion as you would on your desk.

Files are transferred between the device and a Box account over WiFi or directly to a computer with the included USB cable. Also, with a little bit of tinkering you can automate the transfer of documents between the device and your document management system, regardless of whether you use a dedicated DMS like Worldox or the DMS component of a practice management system like PracticeMaster or Time Matters.

Digital Paper is larger and thinner than a typical tablet; even slightly larger than a legal pad at 9.25 inches wide and 12.25 inches tall. The screen is just slightly smaller than 8.5 by 11 inches, so it actually feels like you are writing on a regular pad of paper. At just over a quarter of an inch thick, it’s about as thick as a full legal pad, and at 12.1 ounces, it’s just a little heavier.

While technically it is heavier than a legal pad, the odd thing is that most people have a first impression of it being lighter than a legal pad. I think it is because it plays tricks on your expectations. See, when you pickup a legal pad, you expect it to be light. When you pickup a tablet, you expect it to be heavy. When you pickup digital paper you are expecting a heavy tablet, but what you actually have is something considerably lighter.

The screen is plastic, which makes the device both light and very strong. At the ABA TechShow in Chicago last March, I watched two Sony reps toss it around the Worldox booth. They even threw it at the ground fairly hard, and it survived without a scratch. The display is an E Ink greyscale that is very readable from any angle, as long as there is light available because the device has no backlighting.

The lack of backlighting helps the battery last forever, or at least it seems that way to me. With everyday, all-day use, I only have to charge it once a week. I typically have it on either in full-power or standby mode for 10 or more hours a day, five days a week. The one thing that will kill the battery is forgetting to turn it off at night and instead leaving it in standby mode.

When it comes to actually using the device, you will love writing on Digital Paper from Sony. It feels like writing — real writing. If you’ve ever written on a traditional tablet, you probably are skeptical about Digital Paper. One of the main differences is the stylus that comes with the device. The stylus has a fine point and the only thing that will produce a mark on Digital Paper is the stylus. Yes, the only thing that will produce a mark on Digital Paper is the stylus. This means that you can rest your hand on the tablet as you write in the same way you rest your hand on real paper when you write.

Writing on a traditional tablet is quite a bit different because traditional tablets are touch sensitive. Therefore anything that touches the screen on a traditional tablet makes a mark. This is why I love showing my Digital Paper to someone who has written on a traditional tablet – they invariably will hold their entire hand up in the air as they attempt to write without actually touching the device. Needless to say, this is not a very comfortable way to write, and certainly not something you could sustain for any length of time for extensive notes. When I show them that they can relax and let their hand rest on the screen as they write, that is usually the tipping point – the point where they realize they are in love with a piece of hardware.

The love they feel for Digital Paper is sometimes enough to help them get over the price — sometimes not. Today’s price for Digital Paper is $999, recently reduced from $1,100 when it was released in April 2014. In spite of the high price, it seems to be picking up steam within the legal community.

Sony is currently selling the device to the legal community through its’ official resellers Worldox and William S. Hein & Company. Sony is also quietly selling it through its website, but is not offering customer support for units bought directly, according to CNet.

The question becomes, “Will Digital Paper make it in the long run?” I believe it carries potential to become widely adopted in the market. Sony Digital Paper has created a piece of hardware which gives the end-user the experience of using physical paper while maintaining the ability to have that information transferred and consumed by all of our other various electronic systems. For this, there is great demand. However, balancing this demand with an appropriate price is the challenge Sony now faces. The demand will not go away, and for that reason I believe Sony Digital Paper has a place in our hands, on our desks, and in our briefcases for many years to come.

Originally appeared in: Michigan Bar Journal

Published: November 2014

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