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Mobile devices: Keeping up with the upgrades

Determining when and how to upgrade your mobile device arsenal is a challenge many mobility managers will face this year. In his first column of 2008, Craig Mathias discusses some of the important factors you'll need to consider for your upgrade strategy.

The world of mobile and wireless marches on in 2008, and this year I'm going to try a slightly different approach with these columns. Instead of trying to cover a topic of great significance in one piece (key issues rarely fit into 600 words), I'm going to explore a few big, important topics across three columns. The general format I'll try to follow will provide our readers with an overview of a mobile problem or issue in the first piece, a list of alternatives with pros and cons in the second, and my personal conclusions and recommendations in the third. Let me know if you like this format -- it's in effect a serialized article, and I think the magnitude of the issues we'll cover this year demands such an approach.

So I want to kick off this year with a challenge that we all face: whether, how and when to upgrade your existing mobile arsenal. 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, and I'll cover this and some other important considerations in my next column.

Craig Mathias
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

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