Sometimes being "first" works out and sometimes it doesn't. Neil Armstrong attained folk-hero status as the first man on the moon. But Laika, the first canine in orbit, died of overheating while aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2.
Los Angeles Chief Technology Officer Randi Levin and employees working for the department she directs, the Information Technology Agency, would be wise to remember Laika before they declare victory in the city's decision to deploy Google Apps to its 30,000 employees.
Like Neil and Laika, L.A. is rocketing into the great unknown.
Yes, Google and its partner, Computer Sciences Corp., likely will execute a smooth transition for L.A. from Novell's GroupWise, its existing e-mail system. After all, millions of people worldwide use Gmail for their personal e-mail -- there would seem to be few surprises ahead from a technology standpoint. And after some prodding, Levin appears to have stemmed concerns voiced by the city's law enforcement and public safety interests. Everyone (except Google's competitors) seems to be on the same page.
But that's not the central issue. Like any other enterprise project, it's what happens after Google Apps is in place for a matter of months or years that ultimately will dictate how L.A.'s decision is judged.
The peril of being first is that nobody knows exactly how public opinion will sway when -- not if -- Gmail suffers a widespread service disruption that wreaks havoc with government work. And in a worst-case event, if government data is compromised or lost, will L.A.'s citizens raise more of a stink than they would've otherwise because their personal data was located in an offsite Google server farm? What if the project implementation costs more than anticipated, and it doesn't turn out to be the recurring money saver that the city's budget analysts expect it to be? What if employees find that Web-based e-mail doesn't meet their work needs?
There are many unanswered questions, and no precedent from which to judge. That's why -- despite the drumbeat that cloud computing is the future -- it's a good bet that other state and local government agencies will sit back a year or two and closely watch L.A. before venturing into the cloud themselves.
After all, sometimes, like Laika, you might not make it back.