Android-powered phones and tablets are an increasingly prevalent option for lawyers. Android was the operating system on one-third of the smartphones sold in the fourth quarter of 2010, according to the Wall Street Journal. The power of these devices is not the operating system, though. Just as with Apple’s iPhone and iPad, the real punch comes from the small software apps that you install on your device. Unlike Apple, you don’t need any intermediary software like iTunes to access the Android Market. Let’s take a look at some of the apps you might want to grab for your Android device.
The contact manager that is built into the Android operating system is pretty good. You can also synchronize it with your online Google Contacts, so you can immediately get access to addresses and information you have already organized. You can add contacts quickly from a business card by using Camcard or ABBYY Business Card Readers. Both take a picture of a business card and use OCR to convert the content on the business card into data for your contact record. Camcard will work with any camera but auto-focusing cameras work best. ABBYY requires an autofocus camera. You can grab a free version of CamCard, or buy full versions of Camcard and ABBYY in the Android Market.
Documents to Go remains a primary app for mobile lawyers, having been popular for years with Palm and Blackberry handheld users. You can grab a free version for viewing Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint files, or you can purchase a full version that enables editing. Another well-known app provider is Quickoffice. Their ConnectMobileSuite offers viewing and editing of Microsoft formats as well as integration with online storage sites like Google Docs, Dropbox, and Box.net.
I tried a number of the mobile Web browsers available for Android and ended up coming back to the default browser. Opera Mini claims to be the fastest but I seemed to run into regular problems rendering certain Web pages. If you use Opera on your primary PC, it may be nice to have the uniformity of having it on your smartphone too, as well as the synchronization benefits it offers.
I also liked the Dolphin browser, which is heavily modular. Once you install the browser, you can install a variety of skins and add-ons. One feature I liked was that you could change browsing tabs by shaking your phone. In the end, the add-ons didn’t add value to the type of Web browsing I did. Since these are all free, you might give them a try to see if they suit your preferences more than the default browser.
Mozilla has released its mobile version of Firefox, called Fennec, but it only works on select Android hardware. If you have a supported phone and use Firefox on your PC, it may be worth a look.
One of my initial frustrations was the lack of bookmark synchronization. If you bookmark a Web site in your browser, it remains on your phone. Opera Mini has bookmark syncing but only across different versions of Opera. Since I use Google Chrome and Google Bookmarks, that wasn’t a good solution for me. Chromemarks is a Google Bookmark sync tool, available in a lite, free version, and a paid version. If you are an Xmarks user, you can grab their Xmarksync. The app is free but requires a premium subscription at Xmarks’ site. There is a specific Xmarks app plug-in for the Dolphin Web browser.
The default e-mail app for Android is fine but K-9 Mail does a better job if you are trying to manage more than one e-mail account. I use it to manage multiple IMAP-based e-mail accounts, including my internal e-mail and Google Mail accounts. It allows you to colorize your messages based on which account they were sent to, making it easy to scan your message. Using IMAP, your e-mail remains on its server and changes you make to e-mail are reflected on the server. It also has a lot more options for configuring how the app handles your e-mail connections. The developers indicate that it can also support Microsoft Exchange accounts using a different connection method known as Webdav.
You should be treating your Android device like any other technology containing client and practice data. AVG has a free anti-virus app to help you prevent the inevitable infections developed for Android devices. Lookout Mobile Security provides antivirus and a find my phone feature in its free app. McAfee WaveSecure will enable remote locking and remote wiping of your device. The app is a free 7 day trial and then you will need to subscribe at US$20 per year.
Rather than carrying a lot of work product or confidential information with you, consider using one of the remote storage apps, like Dropbox or Sugarsync, so that you can access what you need but minimize what you are carrying around on your smartphone. (Here’s my longer Slaw column on that topic) If you don’t want to place any data in the cloud, you can buy a remote access app like LogMeIn Ignition that will connect securely to your computer. Tonido’s free app gives you file access without moving client files onto the Internet.
Research and Information
Legal publishers are not yet in the Android Market nor providing Android apps. Westlaw Next subscribers in the U.S. can use their custom mobile Web site but it is not an app. Like West, LexisNexis and Fastcase have developed iPhone apps and their Web sites are accessible via smartphone Web browsers.
There are other research apps you might try. One of my favorites is Accessmylibrary from Gale Cengage Learning. It uses geolocation to determine where you are and what local public library databases are available to you. These may be primarily elementary/high school research databases but often include people and business finding tools and news databases. It works across North America.
If you rely heavily on RSS feeds for your information gathering and use Google Reader, the Google Reader app is a must have. Another popular RSS feed reader is Pulse, which will import your Google Reader subscriptions or you can add your own.
Windows users may be familiar with auto-update, a feature that keeps your Windows operating system current. Other operating systems, like Ubuntu Linux, have package managers that look not just at the operating system but also at all of the applications that are installed. The Android Market has a number of app managers that do the same thing, letting you know when there has been an update released for one of the apps you have installed and prompting you to download the latest version. I’ve been using AppBrain’s App Market as an alternate interface to the Android market, for finding and managing my apps. Since apps are routinely updated, it is a time efficient way to manage the apps you are using.
There are more than a hundred thousand apps in the Android Market that may fit into your practice. There are the obvious ones – like Adobe’s PDF Reader app or the collection from Google – but there may be some that are unique to how you approach your practice. If you find the Android Market app or Web site cumbersome to use, you might use the Appbrain, AndroidZoom, or AndroLib Web sites to search and manage your apps. As you search for apps, keep in mind who created them and watch how the app interacts with your Android device. Look for apps with a large number of downloads and reviews. If you start to see your battery depleting faster after using a particular app or more crashes, it may be that you will need to hunt further for the right app for your needs.
If you have other Android apps you use, let us know in the comments what they are and how you use them.