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How long can smartphones last in the enterprise?

Many organizations aim to use the smartphones they've invested in for as long as possible, but outdated or malfunctioning devices present risks that can cost more in the long run.

Smartphone replacement can be an expensive and complicated process for organizations, so it's useful to know how long mobile devices can last without leading to more costly long-term issues.

Mobile devices are an increasingly vital tool to workplaces today, but they can be a significant investment. Whether smartphones are corporate-owned and managed or employee-owned with a company stipend provided, organizations might look for ways to save money and extend the life of their devices. To do this without damaging the end-user experience or putting data security at risk, it's important to know how long smartphones can realistically last in an enterprise setting.

What factors affect how long smartphones last?

Most modern smartphones last anywhere from two to three years in a business setting. This limit comes down to a few different variables that can affect the lifecycle of a device, including battery health and OS support. While there's no way to fully control some of these factors, organizations can use them to estimate how long their smartphones will last and implement best practices to safely extend the mobile device lifecycle.

Battery degradation

Most modern-day smartphones use lithium-ion batteries, which are highly durable and great for longevity. Lithium batteries typically last 300 to 500 charge cycles, which comes to about two to three years based on use. However, lithium batteries have a limit -- once they meet that peak 300-500 charge cycle, the batteries will start to degrade, resulting in less on-screen time and requiring more frequent charging.

Factors such as heat exposure can also cause faster degradation of the battery and other internal components. Scenarios that could cause this problem include keeping a phone in a case for extended periods of time or under a car windshield during hot summer days. Devices generate more heat while charging, so it's a good idea to remove a phone's case before charging it to avoid trapping that heat. Many small factors can affect the battery, so organizations should advise users on best practices to extend battery life.

When a battery is nearing the end of its functional life, there are ways to monitor it. For example, Apple recently added the capability to check battery health in iOS. An end user or IT administrator can go to Settings > Battery > Battery Health to verify the current health status of the device's battery. Android provides some resources for battery tips and troubleshooting, but there are no native tools in the OS for battery health status. Still, OEMs such as Zebra, Honeywell and Samsung offer tools for battery reporting and health that organizations can use when managing those devices.

Once it's time to replace batteries, best practices include working with third-party service providers to acquire new ones and getting extended warranties at the time of purchase. Of course, organizations can also simply purchase a new device, and potentially save some money with a buyback program.

Investing in external physical protection such as cases and screen protectors is one of the best decisions an organization can make to ensure that devices can weather many different environments.

Device damage and protections

Most users travel with their smartphones, exposing the devices to many different environments. As a result, malfunctioning speakers and cracked or even shattered screens are common sights on personal and business devices alike. It's difficult to avoid the damage that can come from users' clumsiness or natural wear and tear, but there are steps that organizations can take to help protect devices and extend their lifespan.

Investing in external physical protection such as cases and screen protectors is one of the best decisions an organization can make to ensure that devices can weather many different environments. Look for drop protection and any data on what chemicals users can clean cases with, as some substances can degrade plastics. Additionally, avoid cheaper film-based protectors and opt for glass-based screen protectors. While more expensive, it's often more cost-effective to replace a screen protector than a broken screen. Organizations can also work with resellers to install cases and screen protectors on their devices before shipment. This can be especially effective if devices are purchased and sent directly to end users.

Out-of-warranty and out-of-pocket coverage

Organizations should have a plan for what to do if a device breaks or needs replacement. Warranties and device coverage plans can be complicated, but one of the most effective ways to protect device investments is to purchase protection at the start. Using coverage support such as AppleCare for Enterprise, OEM and other third-party warranty support gives organizations extended warranty options for device incidents and component failures. Additionally, they often come with enterprise-centered services such as next-day replacement and tech support.

If device warranty and coverage aren't an option, organizations can take advantage of third-party service providers for device break/fix and support.

IT admins should generally look at warranty coverage when their organization's device breakage rate is higher than 5%-7%, as the additional cost of protection might be more cost-effective than paying out of pocket for each device incident. However, that risk analysis and related decisions will come down to the organization's needs and budget.

Device and OS updates

Beyond the physical hardware aspect of a device's lifecycle and maintenance, IT must also consider software updates and security as part of a device lifecycle plan. It's important to invest in devices that will be supported for the length of service that an organization needs. If a smartphone is only supported for one year but will be in the field for three, any data on the device is vulnerable to security threats, putting the organization at serious risk.

List of reasons to update software.
If a device is too old to receive the latest software updates, it can't properly support data security and UX.

Apple typically supports devices for five or more years, and these devices are suitable for many organizations. Android has also increased its OS support structure for many devices. When looking at Android devices, consider Google's Android Enterprise Recommended list and the technical specifications it provides. This directory shows devices that have gone through a certification program with Google to ensure devices meet strict criteria for supporting organizations, including device updates and security patch support.

Looking at the device model, OS and what protection measures have been implemented, organizations can get a sense of how long their smartphones will last. Once a device appears to be reaching the end of its lifespan, it's important to retire it and find a long-lasting smartphone that fits the organization's needs to replace it. By purchasing the right devices at the outset and following best practices, organizations can get the most out of their investments without sacrificing functionality and security.

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