Mobile device upgrade strategy

Determining when and how to upgrade your mobile device arsenal is a challenge many mobile managers will face this year. When upgrading your mobile devices, you must consider both return on investment (ROI) and associated risks, such as downtime and system modification.

In this e-Guide, Craig Mathias discusses some of the important factors mobile decision makers need to consider for your upgrade strategy. Mathias focuses on how to evaluate a device's age, capability and adaptability for potential hardware or software updates and provides a checklist that will help you determine whether it's time to make the move.

Determining when and how to upgrade the mobile device arsenal is a challenge many mobile managers will face this year. When upgrading your mobile devices, you must consider both return on investment (ROI) and associated risks, such as downtime and system modification.

In this guide, Craig Mathias discusses some of the important factors mobile decision makers need to consider for an upgrade strategy. Mathias focuses on how to evaluate a device's age, capability and adaptability for potential hardware or software updates and provides a checklist that will help you determine whether it's time to make the move.

 In this e-Guide:

  Mobile device upgrade considerations
  Mobile device upgrade cost/benefit analysis
  Mobile device upgrade checklist


Mobile device upgrade considerations  

Deciding whether, how and when to upgrade your existing mobile arsenal is a challenge many mobile managers currently face. I think it's a given that mobility dominates the thinking around IT today; indeed, a solid mobile strategy essentially defines the remainder of the IT infrastructure -- hardware, software and operations. And there's nothing like getting a shiny new notebook, smartphone or cell phone with all of the promise of mobile computing and networking that these imply. But it's also important to consider that said mobile devices will have to serve for quite a while, long after the shininess wears off (and, indeed, the inevitable nicks and scratches are suffered). Mobile and wireless technology is really no different from any other IT purchase where getting the most out of an investment is concerned.

But it's important to point out here that the options inherent in upgrading a mobile device are always going to be a lot more limited than those available to desktop PC users. Desktops are built out of major units (motherboards, hard drives, cases, power supplies, etc.) that are fundamentally designed for modularity. And while I'd seldom recommend a motherboard or processor upgrade (it's far more cost-effective to buy or build a new desktop or server), such is usually impossible with a mobile device. Sure, a larger hard drive is often a possibility, but the amount of labor involved (primarily in the form of copying and reloading the drive contents) makes even this a dubious activity with respect to ROI. It's far better to take advantage of the basic connectivity inherent in most mobile PCs (usually notebooks), upgrading hardware via the interfaces provided (PC cards, USB, etc.), maintaining or upgrading software as desired, and eventually simply sending the mobile PC to a recycler at the end of its useful life. One can expect to get at least three years out of today's notebooks in almost all cases, barring physical damage or loss -- both of which, sadly, remain common.

Note, though, that upgrade options on other mobile devices -- smartphones and cell phones -- will usually be very limited. Many OS-based smartphones can't be upgraded at all, save for new versions of specific applications, and even this is often quite difficult. I'm sure this is all part of the carriers' grand plan to get us all to buy new devices on a regular basis, at least if we want the latest and greatest features. But some upgrades, particularly of applications software, are indeed possible.

There's also an important difference between upgrades and the ongoing maintenance required with any mobile device. Hardware maintenance is minimal, usually limited to occasional cleaning, but software needs to be patched and occasionally updated per your local policies. I'll cover operational policies in my next set of columns in February, but for now let me suggest that it's important to educate users on the need to maintain the integrity of their PCs' (and other devices') configuration. This means careful control over which applications are enabled and similar care applied to the automatic updating process.

The decision on upgrades really boils down to a cost/benefit analysis which we cover next.


Mobile device upgrade cost/benefit analysis  

I want to explore some upgrade options and strategies for the two key classes of mobile devices, notebook computers and handhelds, the latter including mobile phones. As I noted in the section above, the decision on if/when/how to upgrade needs to be rooted in a cost-benefit analysis. Given the limited useful life of any mobile devices -- such limitations being imposed by technological evolution and obsolescence, evolving applications and other usage requirements, and loss or damage -- any upgrade decision needs to be made carefully and with return on investment (ROI) in mind.

Keep in mind that upgrades are not always straightforward and that things do occasionally go horribly wrong. Especially with mobile devices, it is sometimes best to leave well enough alone and allow natural obsolescence to take its course.

To illustrate this point, let's start with notebooks. Most notebooks have very limited hardware upgrade possibilities to begin with, those being confined to:

  1. new external add-ons, such as PC cards, ExpressCards, and USB and FireWire peripherals
  2. memory upgrades
  3. internal wireless upgrades
  4. hard drive upgrades

Any of these can have a positive impact on the performance, functionality and utility of the device. Yet all but option A have serious risks associated. For example, option B is usually pretty simple -- open the memory door, remove the old memory cards, insert the new ones and that's it. But many parts are fragile, and a stray static shock can fry the machine.

The same can be said for upgrading an internal wireless LAN or WAN. The connectors involved, especially for the antennas, can be very fragile indeed. And a new hard drive, while adding both capacity and, usually, performance, can be a really big job -- backing up the old drive, swapping drives (which is mechanically quite simple), and then reloading the backup copy. Sometimes things go very, very wrong here -- meaning that the operating system must be reinstalled from scratch. This is not hard, but it can take a very long time. And all of this can be avoided anyway -- the easy way to add more storage is via USB FLASH drives, which are now amazingly inexpensive.

The beauty of option A is that any new hardware can be reused on the next notebook, and -- other than the possible need to install new drivers -- this is usually very low risk. Of course, software upgrades, such as moving from Windows XP to Vista, can demand more memory and disk space, perhaps motivating an upgrade. But caution is again advisable here -- do you really need a new operating system? Upgrades like these are usually not recommended, and it is often preferable to introduce new operating software on new PCs as the natural replacement cycle takes its course.

This situation is especially true in the case of Vista, which suffers from application compatibility problems -- despite the zippy new Aero user interface, which really does, by the way, require a whopping two gigabytes of memory to run well and adds very little in the way of useful new functionality. A final note -- I generally recommend against BIOS upgrades on PCs unless there's a known problem that needs fixing. FLASHing a new BIOS is somewhat risky, and there are usually few, if any, performance or functionality benefits here if everything is otherwise working well.

As for handhelds -- well, there are rarely opportunities for hardware upgrades, perhaps thankfully. But, frustratingly, software upgrades are also usually very limited. For example, my Motorola Q, which runs Windows Mobile 5, cannot be upgraded to Windows Mobile 6. This may just be a cynical attempt to get me to buy a new phone, which I do quite frequently anyway. Still, other software upgrades can make a lot of sense in extending functionality and thus ROI on handhelds. For example, though I can't get Windows Mobile 6, I can install a new browser that will produce a more satisfying and productive Web experience. It's also possible to add new applications to OS-based phones, and many of these are either free or fairly inexpensive.

Finally, make sure your cell phone is up to date with your carrier. The carriers usually make this easy. For example, on the Verizon Wireless network, enter *228 on the handset to make sure your Preferred Roaming List (PRL) -- whatever that is -- is current. Verizon states that performance is improved if this is done regularly.

No matter what, the cardinal rule of upgrades is this: If there's a quantifiable benefit -- adjusting for the risk involved, of course -- and the useful life of the device still has a good while to run, then do it. If not -- well, we'll review my recommendations in detail next.


Mobile device upgrade checklist  

Mobile upgrades can go a long way to extending the functionality and useful life of many mobile devices. But they're not to be taken lightly and must always be considered with both return on investment (ROI) and any associated risks in mind. Let me sum up my discussion and recommendations as follows:

If it's working fine, meeting your operational and cost objectives, and otherwise not broken, then don't fix it. Upgrades make sense, as is almost always the case in business, only when there is a demonstrable and quantifiable return on investment. Measuring this ROI can be tough, though, and will depend upon your particular applications, industry and accounting practices. But the benefits of an upgrade must be understood before one is performed.

 Don't undertake an upgrade without full knowledge of the risks involved. A lot of time and money is wasted every year on modifications to systems that either don't work, cause damage, or otherwise have negative value. Downtime while an upgrade gone awry is remedied (assuming it can be) is always expensive.

 Buy products with upgrades and lifecycle plans in mind. Some upgrades, like a new wireless card, can be planned quite easily. But there's no point in upgrading a device that's due to be replaced in the near future.

 Have a policy on upgrades and modifications. For example, I suggest that everyone in the organization understand that (a) IT resources belong to the company; (b) unauthorized changes and modifications, including installing unauthorized software, can have a major detrimental impact on both IT and the operations of the company; and (c) all upgrades require that ROI analysis I mentioned. Any decisions made with respect to the purchase of any upgrade must be made in concert with the overall IT policies and objectives that the enterprise has in place.

 Limit notebook hardware upgrades to those that use external connectors – USB, FireWire, PC Card or ExpressCard. Memory upgrades may make sense in some cases, but some risk is involved. Anything else, especially hard-drive upgrades, is suspect.

 Limit cell phone, smartphone and PDA upgrades to software only or, again, peripherals that can be easily added via built-in connectors (CF or SD slots, for example).

 Finally, remember that upgrades are not the same as regular maintenance. Regular software updates are important to overall system integrity. A good cleaning now and then is always a good idea.

And remember, no matter how much we love them or depend upon them, all IT products, especially mobile client devices, have a useful life and will depreciate to zero in a surprisingly short time. There always comes a time when any element of IT, hardware or software, outlives its usefulness and needs to go, regardless of how well it has served in the past. The typical three- to five-year refresh cycle for IT equipment exists not because IT departments like to buy new stuff (OK, I apologize, they do!) but rather because new equipment has superior performance and thus a better ROI. There's an element here that even a CFO can love -- the eventual obsolescence inherent in technology products gives us the opportunity to move over time to more efficient operations that are carefully aligned with the overall goals of the enterprise or organization.

A final point: Think about recycling those old PCs, cell phones and handhelds. They don't belong in landfills. And notebooks can often be recycled in a different fashion into very useful thin clients running LINUX (such as the very nice -- and free -- Unbuntu) and perhaps using the powerful -- and also free -- Virtual Network Computing to give an old machine access to new software at a rock-bottom price.

About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at [email protected]

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