West just released its first iPhone app, the venerable Black's Law Dictionary, 8th Edition. At $49.99 and 152 MB, it is now the most expensive and largest app on my iPhone. So what do you get, how does it compare to the book, and is it worth the price? Let's take a look. This review is a little longer than normal because I suspect that many of you will want to fully understand the app before you decide whether to spend $50 on it.
Black's Law Dictionary is, of course, the definitive legal dictionary in the U.S. First published in 1891, it is now edited by Bryan Garner, perhaps the best known expert in effective legal writing. The current print 8th Edition contains over 43,000 definitions, all of which are in the iPhone app. The print edition, which you can get from Amazon for $52.80, has its advantages: it is easy to browse, you can keep it and use it forever without worrying about computability with future devices, and it looks nice on your shelf. But the feature-packed iPhone version has a lot going for it, even beyond the obvious advantage of always being in your pocket (assuming that your iPhone is always in your pocket).
You find terms in the app by typing into a search bar. Results appear as you begin to type, so you don't even need to finish typing to find what you need. And impressively, even though there are 43,000 terms defined, this app is very fast. When you see the term or phrase you are looking for, just tap on it to see the definition. As you can see, the text is a little small. Although you can pinch to zoom in and out, the text does not reformat when you zoom in which means you need to scroll back and forth. (I noted in my recent review of Quickoffice's Quickword that it reformats when you zoom in on text, and I am really growing to like that feature and wish that more apps would include it.)
As in the print edition, you see a guide for pronunciation immediately after the term. But even better, the app includes a handy audio tool at the top right for about 7,000 terms that you can just tap to hear the word pronounced. It is a clear pronunciation spoken by a male human voice, not a computer synthesized voice. In the definition, some words and phrases are single underlined or double-underlined. The single underline indicates a hyperlink; tap the underlined word to get its definition. This is a great feature that makes the iPhone edition much easier to use than the print edition, and I think more than makes up for the fact that you can't just quickly browse through terms in the iPhone app like you can in a printed book. (Having said that, it would have been nice if the developers had included the ability to swipe to advance forward or backward through terms.) The double-underline indicates a hyperlink to Westlaw.com, which I will address in a moment.
Around 3,000 of the terms include, after the definition, a quotation using the term drawn from various sources. For example, here are the definitions of damages and tort, each of which includes a quote (or for tort, three quotes, the last of which (not shown in this picture) is a classic one from Prosser and Keeton).
At the bottom of each entry, you see a copyright and Bryan Garner's name followed by the page number on which the term appears in the printed version. Garner told me that he was not directly involved in the development of this app (he uses a Blackberry, not an iPhone), but he is obviously ultimately responsible for the content of the dictionary. And on WestBlog.net, Garner is quoted as saying:
The idea that you can have a very full, elaborate, complex and richly textured book like Black’s available at your fingertips is fantastic. I myself am stubbornly in favor of print sources, but I like to watch my daughters use their iPhones. And I know that there’s another generation of people who really prefer the electronic medium at their fingertips.
Many definitions contain sub-terms, indicated by a white plus sign in a blue circle. To view the sub-term just tap on the plus sign. It will then change to a minus sign, which you can tap to minimize. For example, here is the full (two page) definition of prescription, which in a civil law jurisdiction like Louisiana can have a meaning similar to the common law statute of limitations and can also have a related meaning similar to the common law concept of adverse possession. (You can see that this is an example of a term without an audio pronunciation, so the audio tool is inactive.) This definition includes sub-terms for two different types of prescription, acquisitive prescription and liberative prescription:
The app also uses the accelerometer, so when you rotate your iPhone from portrait to landscape the app becomes wide. For example, you can turn the iPhone in the search mode to get a wide, landscape keyboard. Unfortunately, when in landscape mode, the font size remains the same and the app just adds more words per line. Thus, switching to landscape mode doesn't give you larger text as it does in other apps such as Safari. This is a missed opportunity and hopefully something that will be addressed in an update.
As noted above, the double-underlined terms can be tapped to jump to Westlaw.com. In the app's preferences (which you access in the iPhone's Settings app, not in the Black's app) you can choose whether you want to jump to the full Westlaw.com or the low bandwidth versions text.westlaw.com or wireless.westlaw.com.
For example, in this definition of usufruct, I tapped on the link to La. Civil Code. art. 535. After taping OK in the dialog box, the Safari web browser will open and ask you to log in to Westlaw.com (unless you are already logged in). You will then see the page for the link. Here is what it looks like in wireless.westlaw.com and text.westlaw.com:
I can definitely understand why some people would prefer a text-only version of Westlaw on the iPhone. Indeed, a West representative told me that at some point in May, www.westlaw.com will default to wireless.westlaw.com when accessed from an iPhone. (Once the change occurs, iPhone users will still be able to go to web2.westlaw.com for the full website.) Frankly, I prefer the full website on the iPhone. It is full featured and, because Safari is such a good mobile web browser, fairly easy to navigate even on the iPhone's small screen. Plus, it is easy to zoom in on the text by just double-tapping on a column:
It is nice to have the hyperlinks to Westlaw.com for when you need it, but it would be much better if West released a full iPhone client app. And my hope is that they will do so soon and allow one to adjust the preferences to have the Black's app open hyperlinks in a Westlaw app. Of course, West has not yet announced such an app, but one of the Black's app developers, Dan Bennett, said in a press release that he "learned so much about the [iPhone] platform from building Black's that will really help us make future apps." Similarly, WestBlog.net says that more iPhone apps are "in the queue." So maybe a Westlaw app is coming, or perhaps West just plans to use this same app framework to sell treatises or compilations of statutes and rules (similar to what Cliff Maier and The Law Pod are doing).
Although this iPhone app is brand new, the 8th edition of Black's on which it is based will not be the latest and greatest for very long. Originally, Black's Law Dictionary was updated approximately every 20 years. According to Wikipedia, The 1st Ed. was in 1891, the 2d Ed. in 1910, the 3d Ed. in 1933, the 4th Ed. in 1951 and the 5th Ed. in 1979. Then the 6th and 7th Eds. accelerated the refresh cycle to ten years, coming out in 1990 and 1999. Now, it appears that the refresh cycle is down to five years. The 8th Ed. was released in 2004, and a ninth edition is coming in approximately June of 2009. Kevin Hunt, Senior Communications Specialist with Thomson Reuters (West), told me that the company has not yet decided whether or when an iPhone version of the ninth edition will be available.
So is the Black's app worth $49.99? As noted above, the print edition costs $52.80 (and much more if you get the deluxe edition), doesn't include many features of the iPhone app and isn't always in your pocket when you need it. West also sells a digital version of Black's for your computer that integrates with Word and WordPerfect and seems to include all of the features of the iPhone edition such as hyperlinks and audio pronunciation, and that version sells on Amazon for $80.16. So considered in the context of what legal texts in general, and Black's in specific, typically cost, the price is fair. (Besides, you might be able to get your law firm to pay for it or at least write it off as a business expense.) The Black's app is, of course, more expensive than the typical iPhone app, but consider that Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary app , Medical Dictionary app and foreign language dictionary apps such as their English-French app all cost $24.99, and that the Webster's Unabridged app costs $59.99. Also consider some of the iPhone OED apps: the Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus app costs $34.99, the more comprehensive Shorter Oxford English Dictionary costs $49.99 and the Shorter OED version that includes audio costs $59.99. Placed in this context, $49.99 for the Black's app seems fair.
The real question is just whether the app will be worth $49.99 to you. I have an older, print version of Black's Law Dictionary in my office that I bought in law school. I used it a lot in law school, but now I use it only occasionally. But I must admit that having the Black's app on my iPhone for the last few days has brought me renewed interest in the dictionary and I find myself frequently looking up terms during my legal research just because my iPhone is always within reach. Time will tell whether I am still finding this app useful in a month or a year. Nevertheless, I can imagine myself in court one day finding it useful to have Black's within reach, so I think I am going to really like this app.
I am very happy that West has brought this classic legal reference text to the iPhone. There is room for improvement (such as the ability to increase the font size or browse by swiping), but this is a fantastic 1.0 app. Plus, now that West has developers who know how to write for the iPhone, I look forward to what they will bring us next. I'll end with a short YouTube video posted by West in which you can hear from the developers of the app.