A Timeline Of Modern Technologies

As we rush to embrace the future, let’s not automatically abandon the technologies of the past.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 12/1/1995; Student Lawyer magazine, “Online” column; publisher: American Bar Association

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to ask my grandmother, who was then in her nineties, what she considered to be the most amazing invention of her lifetime. In the moment that it took her to answer, many possible answers came to mind, including computers, the airplane, and the telephone. As soon as she answered, I realized just how much I have taken for granted. “Electricity,” she replied. “The old oil lamps were awful. You had to clean the chimney, trim the wick, and keep them filled with oil. It was a lot of work for not a lot of light.” A-lot-of-work-for-not-a-lot-of-law is probably how pre-electronic legal research will be described by future generations of lawyers. Three technological advances are key to electronic legal research today and will become increasingly more important: CD-ROM (Compact Disk Read-Only Memory), the Internet, and ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network). But just as my grandmother kept her oil lamp as a backup in case the electricity failed, so too should today’s legal researcher be well versed in traditional means of conducting legal research. In this article, I’ll try to define what “traditional” means as we enter the digital age.

I. The 1980s – The PC Revolution.

The personal computer transformed the way people do business in the 1980s. As the price of computers fell and as the performance improved, personal computers became more affordable, more useful, and more generally accepted. Today, the personal computer is a crucial component of the practice of law, as is paper mail, the telephone, and the fax machine. The rise of on-line legal research services for lawyers (such as Lexis/Nexis and WESTLAW) paralleled the rise of the personal computer.

II. 1991 – The Year of the CD-ROM.

The next revolution was the CD-ROM, which provides fast access to large amounts of digital data–and at a lower cost than on-line legal research services. A CD-ROM is simply a compact disk (like the music CDs that you use in your stereo) with computer-readable files on it. Anything that can be expressed digitally (including text, pictures, and sound) can be stored on a digital medium.

Compare, for a moment, the CD-ROM to two other digital storage media with which we are already familiar: RAM chips and magnetic hard disk storage devices.

RAM (Random-Access Memory) computer chips are the fastest digital media (because there are no moving parts). The most important information on your computer (the programs that are running and the files that are being edited) are stored in RAM. But RAM chips are very expensive–about $50/megabyte. That’s why you don’t have a 500 megabytes of RAM chips in your computer.

Magnetic hard disks are also digital storage devices. They are slower than RAM chips because of all the moving parts. But they are also much less expensive–about $1/megabyte. The design of digital storage devices (chips and disks) for personal computers includes a simple a tradeoff of speed v. cost. A typical PC may have 8 megabytes of RAM chips (costing about $400) and 500 megabytes of hard disk storage (costing about $500).

CD-ROMs can hold approximately 550 megabytes of information. By applying compression technologies, it is possible to store 800 or more megabytes of information. And with the advent of double-, triple-, and quad-speed drives (which rotate two, three, or four times as fast as an audio CD), CD-ROM drives have become as fast as hard disks. The cost/megabyte of the CD-ROM obviously varies on the price of the CD-ROM product, but CD-ROMs have proven to be an excellent alternative to online legal research services and a safer method of storing large amounts of data. Safer because, unlike magnetic hard disks, CD-ROMs cannot be accidentally erased.

III. 1994 – The Year of the Internet.

In 1994, experts were saying many things about the Internet. That it is great for publishing information within one’s own organization. That the legal and medical profession stand to benefit from it. That content is what matters. That standards are necessary. That it is ideal for publishing electronic versions of paper-based products. That the computer infrastructure needed to take advantage of it can be costly. That it has benefits over paper-based products such as ease-of-accessibility and cut-and-paste. That its hypertext linking allows virtual libraries to be created. Interestingly enough, the experts said all of these things about CD-ROM in 1991.

But that’s where the comparison ends. Before CD-ROM could catch on, CD-ROM vendors had to overcome numerous challenges, including the price of CD-ROM drives and standards for encoding data on the disks. The Internet, on the other hand, can be accessed via numerous networks from numerous computer platforms running numerous software programs. The Internet has been in existence, in one form or another, since 1969, and, as such, it has quite a head start on CD-ROM in establishing standardization procedures.

In 1992, two significant events occurred. First, many of the restrictions on commercial use of the Internet were relaxed. Much of the Internet’s traffic shifted from the National Science Foundations NSFNet backbone to commercial networks (such as the Commercial Internet Exchange, CIX). Second, and perhaps more significantly, we had a vice presidential candidate who had heard of the Internet–and who was interested in its potential. These two events resulted in a tremendous amount of coverage of the Internet in the popular press. In fact in 1993, there were more references to the Internet in The New York Times than in all previous years combined! And in 1994, there were more stories written about the Internet than about CD-ROM.

When the recent unveiling of the Microsoft Network, the Internet is now more widely available to consumers than ever before. For about $20/month, it is now possible to get an account with a commercial online service (such as Prodigy, Compuserve, America Online, or the Microsoft Network) and to have access to many of the Internet’s most popular programs. But to be a publisher of information on the Internet (as opposed to being a consumer of information), it is necessary to purchase services from an Internet service provider. The most popular way to publish information on the Internet is via a World-Wide Web (WWW) server. However, WWW servers require a great deal of bandwidth to send and receive information, and even with 28,800 baud modems, the performance is sluggish. Preferably, a 56 kilobits/second (56 Kbps) leased-line connection or, better yet, a T1 connection (1.5 megabits/second) should be used. But 56K and T1 lease-line connections are not cheap; about $7000/year for a 56K, $24,000/year for a T1).

The Internet has already caught on at a much faster rate than CD-ROM technology. As more Internet service providers enter the market, the price of Internet access will continue to drop. At the low end (for users who want basic Internet access), competition among Microsoft, Prodigy, Compuserve, and America Online will drive prices down. At the high end (for users who want to publish information on the Internet), one technology has the potential to provide high-speed access at a low price: ISDN.

IV. 1996 – The Year of ISDN?

ISDN stands for Integrated Services Digital Network. Basically, ISDN is a technology that turns one ordinary analog phone line (like the ones in your home or office) into two 56K digital phone lines. Sound too good to be true? It may be.

ISDN has all of the problems that CD-ROM technology had. The hardware is still relatively expensive. Standards are needed. But perhaps the biggest reason that ISDN has not caught on is, quite simply, lack of competition in the market. You have to buy ISDN from your local phone company. With CD-ROMs and with Internet service providers, the consumer has a choice. With ISDN, no choice. Have you seen a television advertisement for ISDN? To further complicate matters, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently ruled that ISDN lines should be taxed as two phone lines. That’s kind of like increasing the gas tax on cars that get better gas mileage!

ISDN has the potential change the future. If 1996 is going to be the year ISDN, two things must happen. First, the long distance telephone companies should be allowed to compete with the local telephone companies in the local ISDN market. (A telecommunications bill working its way through Congress may provide for this. But that legislation is very complex, and it may be vetoed by President Clinton for reasons unrelated to ISDN competition.) Second, the FCC should reverse its decision regarding how to tax ISDN lines. Until these two things happen, ISDN will continue to be the technology for the few.

V. The Future.

Five years ago, “traditional” legal research would have meant paper-based legal research. The same is not true today. Today, “traditional” legal research would definitely include the personal computer, which became generally accepted in the 1980s. Depending on whom you ask, “traditional” may also include–today–CD-ROMs and the Internet. Five years from now, “traditional” may include ISDN. While it is difficult to predict what new technologies will be invented and, of those, which will be generally accepted by the legal community, it is clear that new technologies that are destined to be the technology of the future catch on at the exact same time: when the price is right.

The price was right for personal computers in the 1980s. 1991 was the year of the CD-ROM. 1994 was the year of the Internet. And 1996 may very well be the year of ISDN.

New technology often promises to supplant old technologies, but the new should more properly be thought of as supplementing the old–not supplanting it. I was a student at MIT during the PC revolution of the 1980s. All of my classmates rushed to buy personal computers and dot-matrix printers. I did too. But I also brought my typewriter with me to MIT. Many of my friends asked whey I bothered with the typewriter. When it came time for graduation, many of my friends needed to fill out job or graduate school applications. They all asked to use my typewriter because they couldn’t fill out the forms (many of which still had carbon paper) in their dot-matrix printers. I still have that typewriter.

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