Reading about Google’s new Chrome OS laptop plus the lengthy discussion of cloud storage, including NetDocuments, in Randall’s post on backup made me wonder whether I could move my entire law firm online. Chrome OS is the first look at one possible future of computing. If Google has its way, nearly all your data will be stored in the cloud, and you will interact with it almost exclusively through a browser.

To some lawyers, this may sound scary. To me, this sounds awesome. And if Google sees fit to send us a Cr-48 laptop or two from its pilot program (pretty please, Google!), I intend to give it a try.

Could I work  in the cloud?

Chrome OS is completely cloud-based. While you can download files and access the file system, it is limited. You are meant to use the cloud.

I think the technology—though immature—is sufficient to allow me to do all my work in the cloud. Google Apps—around which Chrome is based—is a fairly robust cloud-based software suite. Lawyering means lots of e-mail, documents, and a calendar. We already use Google Apps for e-mail and calendar, so the only question is whether we could use Google Docs for all our client files.

Strictly speaking, the answer is yes. However, with the current size of our client files folder, we would quickly run out of room. With a paltry 1 GB per user, Google Docs doesn’t have nearly enough room even for a fairly lightweight law practice, document-wise.

The idea of storing pictures, videos, audio files, and other media momentarily stumped me, but since I have Google Apps set up for my domain, I realized I can easily store those things in Google Video and Picasa, and they will not be accessible to anyone outside the firm (unless we want them to be). Heck, we could even move our phone system over to Google Voice, take client payments via Google Checkout, and take advantage of all the other Google Apps.

Most of the rest of the software we use in our law firm (such as Clio, Freshbooks, Remember the Milk, Basecamp, MediaWiki, and more) is already in the cloud, so there wouldn’t be anything to move.

But central to putting everything in the cloud is getting it there. And that is where Chrome OS, at least, falls down. As far as I can tell, there is no way to run Adobe Acrobat on it, and therefore no way to use my ScanSnap document scanner. Those are two enormous problems. If I can’t scan, I can’t compute.

If Chrome OS catches on, it is likely that hardware companies will eventually make Chrome OS scanners. And, hopefully, Adobe will eventually provide a way to edit PDFs in a browser (via Acrobat.com, maybe?). But until then, I’ve got no good way to assemble document production or affidavits.

But while the lack of scanner and PDF-editing support means Chrome OS is not a perfect option, I can still do those things in Windows and OS X, which means we could use the cloud, just not exclusively.

Would I want to work in the cloud?

So, now that I know we could migrate to the cloud, the question is whether we would want to. Assuming that Google makes it cost-effective to significantly increase storage in Google Docs (we need at least 10 GB per person), I think the answer is yes, for two reasons: security and flexibility.

Security

I don’t like it when client data leaves the office. I get nervous thinking about laptops with client data sitting in coffee shops, the trunks of cars parked in bad neighborhoods, or on desks where children can get at them. I can’t control who has access, whether firm policies are followed, or consider every eventuality.

If all our data lives in the cloud, and doesn’t leave, then I have less to worry about. I could use Windows, Mac, or Linux desktops at the office, and distribute Chrome OS laptops without much training (“log out when you are done” should do it), and since very little data lives on the computer, I have very little to worry about. Plus, if one goes missing, I can probably wipe the data remotely (I am sure that feature will be added soon, if it isn’t already built in).

I don’t like worrying about backup, either. In the cloud, it’s taken care of, and far better than I could do. Google Docs provides extensive revision history, and nearly every action in the software we use has an undo option (which is more than I can say for our desktop software). I’m sure, if I wanted to, I could set up a backup server to periodically suck the data down from the cloud and back it up, too. Or just use a service like Backupify.

Flexibility

Or, you know what, why buy laptops for anyone? If all the firm’s data is in the cloud, any web browser will do. So will a smartphone or iPad, for that matter.

That pretty much sums up the cloud for me. Use it anywhere, any time, with any gadget. I don’t want to be tied to any particular device, and I want to have the same user experience no matter what I do. Only the cloud can do that, and even if my firm doesn’t make the transition to the cloud in 2011, I’m guessing we will before too long.