In mobile, does IT want more control or less work?

Would changing mobile warranty rules be a good or bad thing for enterprise IT?

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Jason Cross/IDG

The Federal Trade Commission has been seeking comments about what to do about mobile warranties being voided if the user, including IT departments, either tries to fix it directly or uses a third-party repair firm. It's an interesting consumer debate, since forcing all repairs to be done by the handset manufacturer is just asking for trouble. But is this effort a good or bad thing for enterprise IT?

To be clear, this FTC effort is very preliminary and there is no strong reason to believe that the agency will do anything after it reviews the comments. At best, it's likely to recommend that Congress take a specific action in a new law limiting warranty violations, but it's far from clear whether Congress will do anything about it.

That all said, this is an issue with no easy answer. Companies have to be split into the BYOD (bring your own device) camps and the buy-and-distribute camp. In a BYOD reality, the repair onus is entirely on the employee and most IT departments are very happy about that. Indeed, the lack of a need to pay for, manage and fix the devices is one of the better arguments in favor of BYOD.

Therefore, companies embracing BYOD have little interest in this FTC move, either way. But what about the rest? Enterprises that still want to purchase mobile devices in bulk and issue them to employees do have an interest here. Is maintaining control—along with the ability to perform a repair quickly in-house—worth the cost and effort involved in doing this?

This gets into the nature of a mobile device warranty. If the device is new enough, repairs are fully or mostly paid for by the manufacturer. Yes, it is performed on the manufacturer's timetable, but it's often for free. And when the warranty term expires, a business can always do its own repairs—or hire a third party to do the repairs—because invalidating the warranty is no longer an issue.

As a practical matter, when it comes to company-issued mobile devices, discussion of post-warranty-period repairs is trivial. That's because mobile devices become outdated so quickly that most companies would simply replace an old malfunctioning unit—and the new warranty period starts up again. Also, mobile devices today are quite complex—compared to, let's say, typical desktop devices—so setting up a mobile repair operation takes substantial effort and cost.

Robert Fort is a veteran IT executive, having served as senior vice president/CIO for the BCBG Max Azria Group, the vice president of IT for Guitar Center and the vice president of IT and CIO for the Virgin Entertainment Group. Fort was mixed about what would be best for enterprise IT.

"I think the answer is going to vary by size and capability of IT department. Generally, when it comes to consumer devices — phones, tablets — IT has been more than happy not to assume responsibility for hardware repairs. In fact, most the organizations I've worked with haven't been big enough or skilled enough to perform such repairs," Fort said in a Computerworld interview.

Fort said, though, that mobile devices are so much more complex than desktop devices that the issues might lead to different conclusions. "When it comes to laptops, desktops, etc., could be a different story. Warranties in some cases have been too restrictive and forced our organizations to acquire service contracts, incur unnecessary delays to resolution, etc. The opportunity to repair simpler items ourselves faster, cheaper, etc. would be most welcomed."

But with mobile, Fort said, going back to the vendor is often desirable. "As far as mobile has gone, I've always wanted to outsource to the original manufacturer or third party. The technology is changing so fast, and typically hasn't had the same discipline that enterprise devices have, meaning my team would need perpetual retraining, parts would need frequent refreshing, etc  I'm sure at some point this attitude might tip as the devices become more mainstream to my operations, but until then, it is too much hassle to keep up with."

Fort's point, though, brings us back to the FTC comment request. He said that he always wants to outsource to the manufacturer or third party. Right now, warranties don't permit third parties (as long as the warranty is in effect). This might suggest that permission to choose the repair firm might be attractive to enterprises.

Fort specifically said that enterprises that are not using BYOD — the buy and distribute folk — might find warranty relief compelling. "In those cases, because of their business model, it would be of huge benefit to repair themselves and not be saddled with warranty restrictions."

But with BYOD operations — and more and more companies today are moving to a BYOD mobile model — no change in rules would be sought, Fort said. "This has to be thought of in context with BYOD. Most IT organizations I know of are willing to let the employees pick their own mobile device, though we may have negotiated a favorable agreement with a carrier, and all our department took responsibility for was setting up their email, VPN, security. Hardware maintenance we left in the hand of the employee.  We provided no hardware maintenance or support and as policy directed the employee to work with the carrier/manufacturer."

Franz Dill has dealt with IT enterprise issues for a long time, initially as emergent technologist and chief scientist for Procter & Gamble and today as a consultant and adjunct faculty at Columbia University. Dill argues that the speed of change in the mobile space may simply mean that sticking with manufacturer repairs — and therefore adhering to their warranty rules — might be the best option.

"I think that the advances of computing would overshadow that ability to fix old hardware or software" said Dill, adding that open source may slowly start to address those issues.

Paul Cottey, the CIO at Water Street Healthcare Partners, a healthcare vertical investment firm, also saw no compelling reason to change the warranty rules.

"I see this as a false dilemma issue. If a device is under warranty, then send it back to the manufacturer to be fixed. There is no reason for me to open up a broken device if the manufacturer is going to fix it for free. My MacBook Pro went back last month and was back in my hands 48 hours after I dropped it off. If the device is out of warranty, then I don't care if I void the warranty by having an in-house team repair it. If they can't fix it, it was already broken," Cottey told Computerworld. "Most devices these days have a useful life equal to their extended warranty period, so it is throwing good money after bad to repair a five-year-old PC. The approach above is what I followed when I had a couple thousand laptops under my IT team: Send it back if it is covered. Fix it ourselves if we can if it is not covered and then dispose of it properly."

Cottey's fast MacBook warranty repair aside — and laptops are very different animals from mobile devices — the speed of repair strikes me as the core issue. Enterprises are becoming increasingly dependent on mobile devices. And as those devices become more sophisticated, that is only going to accelerate.

Is it viable for a Fortune 1,000 company to have to be entirely dependent on the manufacturer for repairs to what are quickly becoming mission-critical devices? Only the enterprise knows that a particular device is needed for a sales person to close a $90 million deal on Thursday. Apple is never going to care about that.

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