Monday, October 28, 2013

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #3: WestlawNext for iPad

In my last post, I reviewed the WestlawNext Android app. In this post, I turn my attention to the WestlawNext iPad app.

According to Westlaw, the WestlawNext iPad app allows you to "enjoy all the features of WestlawNext customized to your iPad" and is "hands-down the best way to conduct legal research on the iPad." After running the app through its paces, I disagree.

The WestlawNext iPad app does a good job of customizing the WestlawNext experience to the iPad. The homepage is simple and uncluttered, but allows quick access to the major WestlawNext features.

As with the full WestlawNext website, the search box is prominent and the browse options are front and center. Rather than replicating the full website's targeted browsing options (federal material, state material, and topics), the app bases its browsing options on your use of Westlaw. If you do not want to browse from the standard menu of content types, you can browse your recent searches, recent documents, frequently used resources, and favorites. I particularly like the frequently used resources because I use certain groups of resources as starting points for my research (such as the MCLE library for Massachusetts law). The frequently used resources browse option lets me jump directly to my preferred resources instead of stepping down through the browse menu.

The homepage also contains quick access buttons across the bottom of the screen. These buttons are accessible anytime you are not viewing a document, and they allow you to move between the homepage, your search results, your history, your folders, and your offline documents. The buttons took me some time to get used to, since the history and folder buttons are at the top of the screen in the full website. I still tend to search around for the buttons for a couple of seconds when I want to access my folders in the app.

Unlike the Android app, the iPad app provides the full-featured WestlawNext search experience. All of the content filtering options that I have come to love are available. With the iPad in landscape mode, the content filter menu is displayed on the left.  In portrait mode, the menu is collapsed into a button to save screen space, but all of the filtering options are available if you push the button and expand the menu. Whichever way you hold the iPad, you can narrow your searches with the full power of WestlawNext.

When you open a document in the iPad app, you can KeyCite the document, read it, email it, save it to a folder, or save it offline. The offline option is handy if you are taking your iPad somewhere where you won't have Internet access. You can search for and save a collection of documents while you're still connected to the Internet, and then read them at your leisure.

The iPad app may look nice and have a good feature set, but it does not live up to Westlaw's claim that you can "enjoy all the features of WestlawNext." Most of the features are present, but some are missing in action. All of the missing features are ones that are also missing from the Android app.  The Westlaw alerts system is not accessible in the iPad app, and you cannot save documents directly to the iPad in PDF or other standard formats. These omissions are as unnecessary and inexplicable on the iPad as they are in the Android app.  For a discussion of these features and their absence, take a look back at my Android app review.

The related documents column is also missing from the iPad app. I thought that the loss of the related documents column in the Android app was a reasonable result of porting WestlawNext to a smartphone. In the iPad app, I find the absence less understandable and acceptable. Yes, screen space is still at a premium on an iPad, but I think the iPad screen in landscape mode is big enough to accommodate the related documents column. For those who disagree, Westlaw could have made the column collapsible like the content filter menu is in portrait mode.

Despite the missing features, the iPad app is a great way to conduct legal research on an iPad. The visual layout and design demonstrate a solid understanding of how to use the iPad's screen, and the presence of content filtering means I can search as effectively in the app as I can on the full website. Yet the app falls short of Westlaw's claim that it is the "best way to conduct legal research on the iPad." I like the iPad app, but I won't be using it for my legal research. The app does not lose out because of any obvious shortcomings; it falls victim to the excellence of the full WestlawNext website. The full website is so well designed that I don't need an app to port WestlawNext to the iPad--I can use the full website on the iPad as is.

There are two reasons to use an app rather than a website for a web-based platform like WestlawNext: 1) the website does not display well on the iPad screen, and 2) the app can offer different or better features by making use of the iPad's functionality. Neither of these reasons apply to the WestlawNext iPad app. In my opinion, the full website looks great on the iPad screen. In landscape mode, the iPad is able to display the website exactly as a computer monitor does.

The full website offers a visual experience every bit as good as the iPad app, and it provides a better set of features. The app does not add to the WestlawNext experience; it subtracts from it.  The only features the app offers that the full website does not are the ability to save documents offline and the frequently use resources browse option. But the save offline feature is not necessary in the full website since the website allows you to save documents to the device in PDF and other standard formats, which by definition makes the documents available offline. And the frequently used resources browse is useful, but more of convenience than a feature I would depend on. On the other hand, the app does take away features, as I discussed above. And the app requires learning a new layout. When I use the full website on my iPad, I already know where everything is going to be on the screen; I never waste time searching for the folder button.

The WestlawNext iPad app is a high quality app. But it is unnecessary. The full WestlawNext experience is already available on the iPad through the web browser.

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