Features - Lexis & Westlaw: Proprietary Software Versus Browser Based - Past, Present, FutureBy Terry Psarras, Published on September 2, 2001
Terry Psarras is the Manager of Library Services and Intranet Development for Carlton Fields PA, in Tampa, FL. Prior to that he was the head librarian and webmaster for Balch & Bingham LLP in Bham, AL. He has also been the webmaster for PLL for the last two years, and is the head of PLL's Technology Committee for the second year.
Get a group of law librarians together, and at some point they'll start talking about LEXIS and WESTLAW's proprietary software versus the web. Pressure is building from IT departments to move away from the software, and the headaches involved with the necessity of constantly upgrading it. Librarians and other power users bemoan the loss of functionality and speed when using browser based searching. What are the advantages and disadvantages of web-based access, and where are we headed?
In the early days of Westlaw/Lexis, vendors generally provided standalone PCs for use in accessing their services. Upgrades and new software releases were far and few between and usually came in sets of multiple diskettes that were shipped directly to the end users. Since not too many copies were needed, the cost and hassle of updating was not high. Each company would have their own people install the upgrade at each PC one at a time. Upgrading was not a big undertaking, as there were but a few PCs in each organization.
A few years later networks became the norm. With networks came desktop access, and the need to make the software available through many, many more PCs. Some choose to install the software on a single location on a network server and push down to desktops via menus such as NAL (Novell Delivered Applications Launcher). Others without that capability install the software by visiting each user's desktop, a process that has to be repeated each time a new patch or version of the software comes out. Over time more and more patches and newer software versions are being released, many of which are required in order to access new features offered by the vendors.
To keep all their customers upgraded on the software, vendors must produce thousands of sets of diskettes and/or CDs. Each set has to be manufactured and shipped to the user. Then the vendors must rely on an already overworked IT staff to upgrade their software. The introduction of the Internet and the ability of users to download the software from the vendors' websites has made the process a bit easier, but the main factor still remains that the vendors have to depend on the end user to upgrade their software. The whole process is costly and cumbersome for both vendors and users.
With the advent of Internet Explorer as the dominant browser, Westlaw & Lexis have the opportunity to base access to their products on a commonly used platform. But if you are one of the ever decreasing number of people which still likes to use Netscape, you are loosing functionality.
According to Westlaw.com's technical requirements (viewed 8/13/01), minimum requirements are IE 4.01 or later, or Netscape 4.06 or later. Lexis' technical requirements (viewed 8/13/01) indicate that IE 5 or Netscape 4.08 are acceptable, but declares IE the recommended browser. Some Lexis enhancements such as the power navigation bar are not functional when using Netscape 4.76. Allan Huber of Lexis indicated that the next release of Lexis.com in September will be fully compatible with both IE & Netscape 6.1, the latest Netscape version, but not backwards compatible with Netscape 4.x.
Web Changes Everything
With the advent of the Internet, the browser has emerged as the standard that both vendors use and plan to develop. Instead of requiring users to install software on their PC, they can use their browsers to access Westlaw and Lexis on the web.
Lexis.com (at the time called Lexis Exchange) was introduced in August 1997, and Westlaw.com followed in March 1998. Westlaw.com's present incarnation requires the one time download and installation of a applet, used to print to the attached printer, and Lexis.com requires no plug ins at all. The reception from the users has been both good and bad, depending on people's personal experiences with these products.
Personal like and dislikes aside, there are several factors affecting the browser v. software issue. Suddenly, the whole process has the potential to be a lot simpler and cleaner for Westlaw and Lexis. No cost for producing/shipping CDs, etc. No need to wait for the IT people to install the upgrade. Make a change in the system and it is available the next time you log in.
In addition, trying to sell a dot-com product to young attorneys in law school and right after graduation has more pizzazz to it, as compared to the alternative. Both vendors engage in a never-ending battle in the law schools for loyalty of their future users, and the revenue that they represent. After all, librarians are not their primary audience. Though we may in some cases do a disproportionate amount of research as compared to the average user, we are but the few, and their target group may not on the average be as knowledgeable of the finer intricacies of what we are arguing here as we are.
Advantages for Customers
A by-product of this change is happier IT folks, and naturally so. If they forgo the proprietary software, they no longer have to go through the cumbersome ordeal of installing new versions. And the end users don't have to wait for the software to be upgraded in order to have access to new enhancements.
With the web, remote connectivity is a lot easier, as now one can access these services from anywhere in the world. No need to make sure to install the software on your laptop, and no hunting around for a PC with the software on it. Now you can get on at the public library, or your uncle Ernie's PC, as long as they have web access.
Integration capabilities with intranets/portals are an area where the browsers beat the software hands down. As we move to a more browser-based environment, where portals dominate, the capability to integrate services, search screens and results can become a valuable tool for the researcher.
As the move continues to the web, attorney transition should become easier than it has been. From law school to clerkships to jobs at law firms, the corporate world, courts or academia, a single interface would help simplify transition. In today's environment, we often run into situations where law school students were taught the web, only to come out to and have to learn the software, and vice versa
Arguments in Favor of the Proprietary Software
Why would anyone still like the software anyway? Why resist the web? Known quality, familiarity and ease of use, speed, and coverage are the main factors that come to mind.
Through their different incarnations over the years, the software has been pretty reliable, and a known entity. The latest versions released by Westlaw (Westmate 7.33) and Lexis (18.104.22.168) work quite well. The question in some user's mind is whether change is happening for a reason and not simply for change's sake.
Most users who started using Westlaw & Lexis before the late 1990s are more familiar and comfortable with the software. Librarians, attorneys, paralegals, and other users can do things with their eyes closed. The familiarity we have developed as software users is worth a lot in terms of peace of mind while researching, especially in the stressful environments we often find ourselves in the legal profession. Features like command stacking help simplify tasks, and the absence of graphics helps the software be speedy, even with connections, which may not always be up to snuff.
Speed is another area where the software has an advantage. Others factors being even, users like faster products. Westlaw and Lexis keep making claims that their web products are getting faster, but ask any user; the software is still faster.
Paradoxically, users keep discovering databases available only in the software and not yet on the web. While this number seems to be decreasing, there are still definite differences in coverage. Even when the same coverage exists on both access methods it is sometimes arranged differently between the two, thereby not facilitating efficient and effective research. Often this discrepancy is a result of third party content providers who will not ALLOW their content to be provided on the web by Lexis or Westlaw. And unfortunately, it is not always easy to figure out what content is available on the software versus the web.
The future clearly lays with the web browser.
Usage of the browser version is climbing. Already in May of 2001 over 50% of total Westlaw usage was via Westlaw.com. More specifically, academic usage was almost entirely westlaw.com, corporate (in house counsel) was over 2/3 westlaw.com, small and medium law firms were both over 50%, large law firms were close to 40%, and finally federal government accounts are the slowest adopters but their westlaw.com usage was close to 30%. Lexis's numbers are very similar, with the majority of their use coming from the web. Specifically academic usage is almost 90%, large and small firms are easily over 50%, and courts and corporate counsel are pretty high as well.
Both Allan Huber of Lexis and Terry Dick of Westlaw indicated that their companies would continue to support the software for the foreseeable future. (Lexis has instituted a service surcharge for smaller accounts, which continue to use the software while Westlaw has no plans to do so. Lexis justifies this as a need to cover expenses associated with dial up networks, and has not according to Allan Huber - received a lot of negative feedback.) But development on the software side has, for all intents and purposes, ceased. New features will not be added to the software. Westlaw.com already has several new features not available on WestMate, such as KeySearch, Most Cited Cases & KeyCite Notes.
The flexibility of the web based systems remains one of the best things about them, for vendors and users alike. Recently on law-lib, the possibility of adding a error-correction button and an email address book addition to one's password were discussed. I think both have the potential to be valuable tools and should be considered by both vendors. Implementing changes like these though would be a major undertaking under the software regime, requiring a new version, while making these available to us would be a lot easier via the web.
So let's enjoy the software while it is still around, as we prepare for the inevitable. Browser based access to Westlaw and Lexis offers everyone involved the best possible platform to move forward. And as web products evolve over time, their functionality and speed will no doubt increase, thus incorporating the best the web has to offer along with what made the software so good in the first place.
1. Interview with
Terry Dick, Director of Technology Marketing, West Group, conducted via
telephone on 8/6/2001.