Cloud Computing Gets Real

Last year ended with a flurry of high-profile cloud computing announcements in the public sector. But 2011 was when the rubber really hit the road.

Minnesota, Wyoming and California signaled their intention to adopt cloud-based email and collaboration platforms in late 2010. So did cities like New York and Pittsburgh. This year, early adopters confronted the heavy lifting of establishing government cloud computing on an enterprise scale.

By this fall, a handful of states were moving thousands of users onto cloud-based services. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead announced in June that 10,000 state workers were using Google Apps, becoming the first state to complete an enterprise rollout of the company’s cloud-based email and productivity suite. Meanwhile, Minnesota began moving agencies onto a hosted Microsoft communications and collaboration platform in October. And Florida expected to begin moving users to a hosted Microsoft platform before the end of 2011.

But the move to the cloud wasn’t always easy. As the year wound down, Los Angeles CTO Randi Levin found herself in the middle of a nasty dispute over the city’s ongoing shift to Google Apps. Los Angeles became the first government entity to adopt Google Apps enterprisewide in 2009, vowing to move 30,000 city employees into the cloud. But difficulties in moving police onto the cloud platform — due to security and privacy concerns — meant that nearly half the city workforce hadn’t transitioned to the new service by mid-2011. In a November letter to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a local consumer group asked the city to “disclose immediately the extent to which Google has failed to comply” with its contractual obligations, claiming the deal amounted to “broken promises and missed deadlines.”

Indeed, even as cloud computing made inroads into the public sector, many public safety officials continued to question the industry’s commitment to delivering cloud solutions that meet the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services requirements and other specialized rules. And an April outage of Amazon’s cloud storage platform — which hobbled a number of commercial websites — reminded everyone of the need for due diligence and backup planning as they move to hosted services.

Still, this was the year government took solid steps toward figuring out cloud-based email and collaboration on an enterprise scale. And everyone will benefit from the lessons learned through these pioneering deployments.

— Steve Towns, Editor

Tablet PCs Take Off

Will 2011 be remembered as the “Year of the Tablet?” If so, the designation is certainly justifiable. It was in early January at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas that more than 80 new varieties of tablets were announced. The public’s desire for tablets was further stoked when Apple released the iPad 2 in March. The company sold 2.5 million of them by April. Indeed, 2011 saw an unprecedented level of interest in tablet computers, which culminated with the November launch of Amazon’s Kindle Fire, what many have deemed the iPad’s first true competitor.

But what is it about tablets — the iPad in particular ­­­— that drives people to sell their belongings so they can afford one on launch day? CES CEO Gary Shapiro thinks people are enamored of their potential. “The tablet has phenomenal applications, which will allow businesses to be creative and innovative about how they get their messages to their customers, and also for consumers to access more and more services.” Government, as a primary service provider, is poised to exploit those capabilities, he added. “There’s phenomenal growth opportunity to use technology to provide better service at a lower cost to citizens.”

The boom in tablets is likely part of the evolution of mobile computing. In September, an IDC analysis projected that by 2015, more people will access the Internet on mobile devices than on PCs. Most with even a passing familiarity with mobile computing are sensing a global shift away from stationary computer terminals to devices like tablets, which allow users to do what they want wherever and whenever they choose.

Tablets also began turning up in classrooms. As we reported in March, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is experimenting with using iPads for educational purposes and is winning praise from teachers and students. “The students are much more engaged and interested in the material and because of that, maybe I’m pushing them a bit more and asking more challenging questions,” said CPS teacher Kevin Cram.

But not everything came up roses in 2011 for tablet purveyors. BlackBerry’s much-anticipated PlayBook was a critical and retail disappointment. Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard spent months hyping its TouchPad tablet, launching the device in July, only to discontinue it seven weeks later.

But the future for tablets is bright, and the battle between Amazon’s Kindle Fire and next year’s iPad 3 is poised to be a top tech story of 2012.

— Chad Vander Veen, Associate Editor