As you may have heard, Google has been building a new operating system called Chrome OS. It's not finished yet, but they just sent out a number of test laptops so that early adopters can start trying it out. I'm not going to bother writing my thoughts about the OS (because I haven't used it yet - Bracken might have an upcoming post about it though) but all you really need to know is that it's an operating system like Windows or Mac OSX, but the entire OS is a web browser.
You read that right. It's a computer without anything other than a web browser. You boot it up, log in, and see a new browser window. There are no programs to install, no files to worry about, and none of the complexity you get with traditional operating systems. While it sounds like an interesting idea, Chrome OS can only replace the things you use your current computer for if those things happen in a browser. If you can't do it online, you just can't do it in Chrome OS.
With this in mind, I've been trying to think about what I use my computer for that can't currently be done online. I use web-based software for email (Gmail), documents (Google Docs), calendar (Google Calendar), listening to music (Pandora and GrooveShark), organization (Workflowy), plus all the normal web stuff like Facebook and Google Reader. That covers about 95% of all my recreational computer use, but there are some holes missing:
Despite all the advances in online applications over the past few years, there are some things that are just too sophisticated for a browser to do well. Media editing is one of those things. Sure, there are websites such as aviary.com that offer some basic tools for image and audio editing, but they're nowhere near as powerful as tools like Photoshop, and they're all pretty poorly designed so I wouldn't want to use them anyway.
Documents with complex formatting and layout
Google Docs works just fine for my normal word processing, but sometimes I need to make something that looks a little bit nicer like a brochure or flier. Google Docs just isn't able to handle precise layouts. If you want something designed right, you're unfortunately stuck using something like Microsoft Word or Publisher.
This probably isn't an issue for most people, but I spend much of my time writing code, interacting with databases, and testing software. I rely on traditional applications (PowerPHP and SQLYog) for my development, and I'd have a hard time moving to the online equlivalents. One thing that would be particularly difficult to do in Chrome OS is test how websites behave in browsers other than Chrome. I have to test my code in Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Opera. I don't think that would be possible using ChromeOS.
This is a kind of weird one, because I currently use Dropbox to store absolutely all of my files online. The problem is that Dropbox's online interface is clumsy. This isn't Dropbox's fault, it's due to a fundamental limitation with browsers. So while I'd love to continue using Dropbox, I need some native-feeling application to make it easy to interact with those files and open then with the correct web apps by default.
So that's my list. Just four things.
File storage should be a piece of cake for Google to figure out. Tools like LucidChart prove that browsers are capable of handling the complex layouts in documents (but for now those layouts are restricted to flowcharts, and other specific types of documents). So basically, I just need image editing and development tools before I could become 100% web-based. I don't really expect either of these areas to move to the cloud anytime soon, but there are many people out there who aren't professional designers or programers (what? you mean most people don't build software for a living?) and those people are probably just fine with the existing online tools.
What I'm getting at here is that I think we're closer than many people realize to being able to perform absolutely all of our computer use from within a browser. What do you think? What native apps couldn't you live without?