The big three office technologies of the nineties are graphical user interface word processors, the fax machine and e-mail. Of the three, the use of e-mail is the least widely known by those who live and work outside of networked offices. But the availability of e-mail through on-line services, such as CompuServe and America On-Line and the development of World Wide Web based Internet e-mail has pushed the use of e-mail to the forefront. If you work in an office that has a large network run from a so-called "server" computer, you probably have high-quality e-mail that you can access both from your office and from your home. If you are lucky, you will have access to your e-mail wherever you are without regard to what time it is there or at home. This absence of time considerations illustrates one of the great advantages of e-mail and one of the main reasons why it has become so popular. The techies refer to it as "asynchronous" communication. Asynchronous is a big word for a simple concept. Anyone who has had to have business conversations between, say Arizona and London, understands what the problem is. Our time zones are just far enough apart that it is almost impossible to have normal business communication over the telephone. E-mail allows you to communicate outside the time limitations by instantaneously transferring your communication to a recipient where it is stored until they are ready to pick it up. Thus, if you want to send a message from Phoenix or Tucson at 5:00 p.m. to your partner in London, you can do so even though it is the small wee hours of the morning there. Your communication will sit on the computer until he comes in the morning, just a few hours later. You will be asleep and he will get the message. Of equal significance is the ability of modern e-mail systems to allow you to transfer a complete computer file to your partner in London. Modern e-mail systems allow you to attach a file to your e-mail message which he can then download to his computer in London. That file could contain the text of a brief or contract and depending on how sophisticated the e-mail system is, it may allow you to transfer images such as photographs and other diagrams that have been scanned in your office here. When these systems work well they are far better than ordinary faxes because they provide a completely usable text file at the other end as well as full high quality images instead of the typical fax rendition of graphics. More importantly, the copy of the brief that you sent to your partner as an "attached" file can be edited by him just as if it had been created on his own computer. Now, with the advent of small simple scanners, such as those I talked about a few months ago, the ability to transfer high-quality photographic images is enabled. This is powerful and very functional technology for lawyers.
The difficulty comes in trying to find a way to access that technology if you work outside of the large firm context. And, even in the large firm, international access to e-mail may be a problem. There are two relatively straightforward solutions to that dilemma. The first is to sign on with some kind of on-line service, such as America On-Line or CompuServe. The second is to utilize the World Wide Web and the Internet for your mail service.
The two leading on-line services are America On-Line and CompuServe. Prodigy, which a year ago was a strong competitor, has virtually collapsed. CompuServe is the older and more mature service, but America On-Line aggressively seeks new customers by providing a high-level of service, easy nationwide access and a first-rate e-mail system. What it lacks is the capacity to hook up to other e-mail systems on the Internet through a feature called Telnet. CompuServe offers Telnet capability but it does not work very well.
Of the two e-mail systems it is my opinion that America On-Line is far and away the better. The America On-Line e-mail system is very, very easy to use and can be accessed by people with virtually no computer training. In many ways, America On-Line e-mail has been the engine that has driven the acceptance of e-mail outside the large corporate context. One of the features of America On-Line e-mail that I like the best is called Flash Mail. Flash Mail allows you to set up your computer so it will automatically dial your e-mail account at America On-Line and download all of your messages to your computer where they can be retrieved easily. When I am traveling I have my secretary forward all of my regular email to the AOL mailbox. I have flash mail access the mailbox every hour so that I get my email just like I would at home. In addition to its high-level of functionality, however, Flash Mail also saves you money because it reduces the amount of telelphone time to a ridiculously small amount. I don't use America On-Line for much of anything except mail, and the use of Flash Mail allows me to never exceed the four hours of time that I get for my $9.95 monthly fee. Moreover, I have never had a problem accessing the America On-Line 800 number no matter where I have been. The 800 number gets you on to the AOLnet which allows you access to the entire AOL system at high speed and with very good transmission quality. Sending a text file with America On-Line is as simple as clicking a box that says "attach." I really like America On-Line E-Mail and it is interesting to me to note the number of high-tech businesses that have addresses at America On-Line. While I have not taken a careful count, I am clear that the America On-Line address is far and away the most commonly selected service among the high-tech business people that I communicate with on a regular basis. I recommend America On-Line very highly. If you were looking for a simple point and shoot e-mail provider, AOL is the best on the block.
CompuServe is a wonderful on-line service and if you need access to all kinds of information relating to the world of technology, CompuServe is hard to beat. I find its e-mail system, however, a little bit clunky and much harder to use. CompuServe doesn't have anything like Flash Mail, although it does allow you to download messages that can be read off line later on. CompuServe does allow you to send files, but that cannot be done directly from your regular e-mail. CompuServe does provide nationwide access and even worldwide access via an 800 number, but I have found that access to be unreliable. The people at CompuServe, however, are tough competitors. They are fully aware of the massive shift to America On-Line and they are responding as a good competitor should. The result of the competition will be to expand your choice in regard to e-mail providers and to increase the quality of e-mail of this sort.
The Internet and the World Wide Web
There is another email choice, and that has to do with the Internet. Neither AOL nor CompuServe is a good way to get on the World Wide Web. Next month we will talk about using the Internet directly and how e-mail fits into that picture. Since you don't want to be constantly changing your email address, the method you choose does have some long term implications. You won't go wrong trying out the free hours given by AOL or CompuServe, but a survey of the use of the Internet alternative may be interesting to you. In the meantime, let me extend a personal invitation to all of you to visit the Courtroom of the Future at our Saturday open house at the Bar Convention. See you there!