Vol. 84, No. 6, June 2011
Many lawyers are becoming more mobile while wanting to stay as connected to the office as possible. Having access to key files and folders at all times is no longer a luxury but a necessity. The advantages of travelling lightly must be balanced against the need to bring along information or have it easily accessible. Several Web-based services provide online storage of and access to folders and files and can be reached from most Web browsers, and some services even have applications for smartphone access. Features and storage space vary between providers, with some being free and others having only fee-based options, and most of them offer cross-platform functionality, which allows sharing of files between Windows, Mac OS X, and even Linux operating systems.
File Sharing and Synchronization Services
• Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) is a popular file-sharing and synchronization service. Dropbox provides 2 GB of free online storage and allows you to synchronize files placed in your online Dropbox folder with other computers if you install the desktop application. When you install the Dropbox desktop application, Dropbox automatically synchronizes new and changed files between your online account and each Dropbox folder you create on other computers. So, if you have a computer at the office, a laptop, and a computer at home, anything placed in one of the Desktop Dropbox folders or placed in your online Dropbox folder will be synchronized to all the computers on which you have installed the application.
One of the unique features of Dropbox is the ability to perform what is known as a Delta sync, which transfers only the parts of the file that have changed. This increases synchronization speed and lowers bandwidth requirements. Because Dropbox places an exact copy of the file found in the online storage on your desktop, you can work on these files even if you are not connected to the Internet or you lose your connection. When you reconnect to the Internet, any changes will then synchronize to your Dropbox account and from there to any other Dropbox folders you have created on other computers.
Sharing files in Dropbox is easy and straightforward: place a file in your Dropbox Public folder, right click on “Copy Public Link,” copy the unique URL provided by Dropbox, and email it to anyone you wish to share the file with. Placing the file in your Public folder gives direct access to the file without the need for the recipient to have a Dropbox account. You can also share files and folders that are not in your Public folder, but if the recipient does not have a Dropbox account, he or she will be asked to sign up for one to access the file or folder. When you share a file or a folder in this manner, it will be added to the recipient’s Dropbox and any changes will be synchronized.
Dropbox does not restrict the file type you can add and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, and iPhone and Android Blackberry phones. According to the company, public folders and files cannot be browsed by anyone on the Internet but can only be accessed by the specified URL to reach them. Dropbox uses SSL (Secure Socket Lawyer software) to create an encrypted link between your Web browser and its servers. AES 256 encryption is used to secure files and is the same standard used by the U.S. Government. According to the company, files cannot be accessed by anyone without your account password. However, DropBox has confirmed that it is required to comply with a legitimate court order if it is served and is unsuccessful in opposing the order. Dropbox has stated that it will not release any information without notifying the user first, but concerned users should consider encrypting their documents before sending them to DropBox, using a product such as Truecrypt (www.truecrypt.org).
Nerino J. Petro Jr., Northern Illinois 1988, is the advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411™). He assists lawyers in improving their efficiency in delivering legal services and in implementing systems and controls to reduce risk and improve client relations. Visit the Law Practice Management area at www.wisbar.org regularly for practice management guidance. You can reach Petro at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6012, or email email@example.com.
You might want to not install the Dropbox desktop feature if you have limited hard-disk space because the synchronization process places the actual files on your computer thereby taking up disk space. Basic Dropbox service with 2 GB of storage is free or you can select either 50 GB of storage for $9.99 a month or 100 GB of storage for $19.99 a month.
• MobileMe (www.me.com) is the synchronization and file-storage service from Apple. A MobileMe account provides 20 GB of storage for $99 a year. In addition to file storage, MobileMe provides synchronization of email, contacts, calendars, and photos. The most relevant feature for purposes of this column is the MobileMe iDisk. iDisk places on the Mac desktop an icon that, when opened, shows all the files and folders contained in the iDisk online storage space. You can upload and download files from any computer that has a Web browser or by using the iDisk application for Macs, the iPad, and the iPhone. You can share iDisk folders with friends and colleagues, who can access them via the Internet using a Web browser.
Another iDisk feature, similar to services provided by YouSendIt (www.yousendit.com) or other similar file-sending services, allows you to upload large files and then send your recipients a link to that file by email. Using the link, recipients can download the file and avoid email-attachment size restrictions, which many law firms and email providers impose. A useful adjunct to this linking feature is that you can set a password for accessing the file and set the number of days the file will be available for download.
One thing the iDisk lacks is the ability to synchronize files automatically between a desktop computer (or other device like an iPhone) with the files in the online storage folder. This inability does avoid the issue created by Dropbox (discussed above), that is, if the Dropbox desktop application is installed, unnecessary files might be downloaded to your device. This can be an important consideration if storage space on your mobile device is limited. In other words, you control when and where you transfer files between your device and your iDisk.
On devices not from Apple, you can access your iDisk and other MobileMe records using the MobileMe Control Panel application; however, this requires installation on the PC of iTunes version 9 or a more recent version. Like Dropbox, MobileMe uses SSL to create an encrypted link between your Web browser and MobileMe servers. Accessing your iDisk (actually, your MobileMe account) requires you to provide your username and password; however, I have been unable to locate any information regarding any encryption or other security information for files placed on an iDisk.
• Microsoft Windows Live Mesh 2011 (http://bit.ly/9Cqrgy) is similar in some ways to Dropbox, allowing for online-storage and desktop synchronization among multiple computers including Macs and smartphones with mobile Web browsers. Live Mesh is free and comes with 5 GB of synchronized storage via Windows Live SkyDrive, which is part of the Live Mesh package.
• Microsoft Windows Live SkyDrive (skydrive.live.com) is a free 25 GB online-storage and sharing service that can be accessed by most Web browsers. Access and security is controlled by a Windows Live ID and a password but SkyDrive does not use the SSL protocol when creating the link between your browser and its servers and there is no encryption on the files. SkyDrive works with Microsoft Office, including the online versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. You can manage document versions, share your files and Office documents with people you specify, and include varying levels of permissions to allow other people to edit, delete, or only view.
Some other services include the following:
• Drive Headquarters (www.drivehq.com)
• 4 Shared (www.4shared.com)
• Google via its GoogleDocs service (docs.google.com)
• Box.net (www.box.net)
• OpenDrive (www.opendrive.com)
• SugarSync (www.sugarsync.com)
Many of the online storage services provide special features and additional storage for their paid accounts. One of these may be a better fit for your needs, and so do not hesitate to compare features and price. But consider starting with a free account with one of the services discussed in this article: you will probably discover that your life on the go is easier and more