Compare & Contrast
Web Timekeepers Track Your Activities
by Anthony Paonita
A FEW YEARS AGO, the young Marc Andreeson of Netscape Communications Corp. predicted that browsers would become everybody's OS, or operating system. (His musings were said to have helped galvanize Microsoft Corp.'s efforts to make sure its browser was the OS, but we won't go there right now.)
People dismissed Andreeson as exaggerating, but lately it seems the young visionary was, well, visionary. Think about it: We get our news, download new software, listen to the radio and do everything except brush our teeth in a browser window. Especially those of us with fast office Internet connections.
Suddenly, the thought of buying software to perform such mundane tasks as keeping calendars, sending e-mail and writing seems positively quaint -- at least at the workstation level.
CIRCLE NO. 205
PRICE: free for first five users; $3.95 a month for the rest.
FEATURES: Different authority levels for regular and administrative users, e-mail invoicing with mail invoicing available, report compilation.
CIRCLE NO. 204
PRICE: Basic service free, with added charges from 99 cents to $12 for Internet and first-class mail invoicing or "Premier Plan" at $9.95 per month and reduced prices for other services.
FEATURES: Unlimited time and expense tracking, online client and project database, Internet invoicing, phone access, print and mail invoicing.
CIRCLE NO. 206
PRICE: $5 a month for 10-200 users, above that it's negotiable.
FEATURES: Unlimited depth of task/sub-task hierarchy, Microsoft Project 98 import/export; spreadsheet-style data entry; Administrator can edit any timesheet, managers can be configured to edit timesheets -- non-employee-made changes are logged to database.
CIRCLE NO. 207
PRICE: Free for basic service, from $4.95-$13.50 a month for other services.
FEATURES: Basic services feature unlimited usage, e-mail invoicing. Premium services: first-class mail invoicing, fax invoicing, express delivery invoices, cell phone and Palm access.
Time's up for within-the-box, shrink-wrapped software, say proponents of the Internet. ASPs -- "application service providers" -- are the latest craze in cyberspace. Though some are still "vaporware," software developers are beginning to deliver on the promise. Check out Sun Microsystems Inc.'s StarOffice. Speaking of time, time-and-billing seems to be one of the first areas to jump onto the ASP/Internet bandwagon.
Instead of buying software, these developers want you to rent it. Instead of keeping your records on your network or hard drive, they propose that you subscribe to their services and store your data on their server "farms."
Why on earth would you want to do that? Well, for starters, it's called 24/7 access. You no longer need carry a laptop or be wired to your home or office computer. You can access your vital records from any device with an Internet connection, be it an airport Internet kiosk, a colleague's computer, your Palm VII or any PDA, or even the latest crop of "smart" phones.
This concept also appeals to the not-so-few of us who use multiple computers. Think about it -- you probably have an office desktop, a home desktop, a laptop and a Palm. And a cell phone. Bingo -- five units that must be synchronized if you store your stuff on your own network or hard drive. With Web-based systems, you can just log in to the 'Net and there they are. It's especially useful for people who need to share resources and work in different locations.
Another big plus: No maintenance of software. You won't have to bother researching the software, there's not much in the way of training needs, you don't have to install anything or worry about buying and installing updates.
Caveats? The usual concerns about Internet access and service apply. Do you have a fast, reliable connection? Then don't sweat it. If you haven't overcome your nervousness about entrusting sensitive data to someone else, then you might not want to subscribe. But if you're reasonably comfortable with, for example, using your credit card to buy a book from amazon.com, then you shouldn't have a problem with these services.
So back to time-and-billing. What are your options?
There are a few virtual timekeepers out there and they basically all work the same way. You sign up for an account (the cost varies, but they are often free). You fill out forms for client name, address, etc., -- in other words, all the usual information. Then you enter your time. The Web program calculates a bill, based on your hourly rate.
How do they make money? Well some charge you not for using the service, but if you want them to process the actual invoices and mail them to your clients. Others have other ways to pocket money.
Here are a sample of the new crop of Internet-based programs: TimeBills.com Inc.'s namesake TimeBills (www.timebills.com); Red Gorilla's Gorilla Time (www.redgorilla.com); and Elite Information Group Inc.'s Timesolv (www.elite.com).
One of the most important aspects of these ASPs is that they are platform-agnostic, meaning they don't care what kind of computer you use. That means you can run a Windows machine, a Mac, or for the brave, a Linux box. All that matters is that you have a recent, strong browser.
Of these, only Timesolv has a specific product tailored for lawyers. Tock, from Clockware (www.clockware.com), has a dual personality: Clockware sells a server-based product with a browser user interface, but you can also subscribe for a monthly software rental and per-user fee.
TimeBills is free for small offices, of up to five users. Why? According to its Web site, "We are investing in young, growing companies. By taking away some of your administrative burden, we hope to help you grow into a thriving enterprise with more than five users." After the first five, there's a sliding monthly payment. It's pretty simple to use -- I set up an account in minutes for a mythical graphics firm -- but doesn't have "hooks" into the Palm OS or any other such exotica.
Tock is also free of such exotica, but offers more hooks into existing software, such as Microsoft Project and databases.
Red Gorilla is more elaborate, offering different invoice templates, from simple to the rather officious looking. And if you subscribe to a deluxe (payment required) service, you can enter information using your Palm or even a cell phone.
That's especially attractive to our crowd, especially if you're running around to meetings, court dates and depositions and don't normally lug around a laptop.
TimeSolv is similar to Red Gorilla in its features, allowing access from handheld computers (both Palm and Windows CE) and other wireless devices. But it tries to set itself apart from the pack, with versions tailored to specific industries and professions, including law. You enter the legal version of it through a "portal," and, the company says, one can utilize American Bar Association phase and task codes.
Whether subscription or server-based, all of these services can set harried firm administrators free from the hassle of configuring software on each lawyer's computer. And for those in small or solo practices, they can free you -- you have better things to do with your time than install software, don't you -- from the bother of having to think about buying software, or feeding it with constant upgrades, updates and bug fixes.
Anthony Paonita is a senior editor of The American Lawyer and contributing editor of Law Technology News.