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IT pros: Rethink before you replace

According to Andy Wolber, you should rethink your devices -- and software --- before you routinely replace equipment.

"I need to buy a server, a phone system, a postage machine, and a network switch," my friend said. She was about to move her small organization to a new office, away from space shared with a larger company.

"Are you sure you need all of that?" I said. "You might need a scale to weigh items, but you can purchase and print postage from Stamps.com."

She crossed out the postage machine, and replaced it with Stamps.com. Software replaced hardware.

"Your files are all online, right? What do you use your server for? QuickBooks?" I asked.

"I can't even remember the last time I saved a file to the server," she said. "And our bookkeeper uses QuickBooks only on her computer. She saves a backup of the file online."

"So, you don't need a server," I said. "That leaves a phone system and a new switch. What phone system were you considering?"

She pulled out a quote for a phone system that cost several thousand dollars.

I frowned at the quote and said, "Since everyone has a computer — and many people work out of the office — you might look at something like Switch.co or RingCentral.com. Your laptops and smartphones already have data connections, microphones, and speakers. Buy headsets and software, not additional gear — unless you really need it."

"That leaves the switch," I continued. "You need the switch and a solid internet connection."

If you've purchased technology in the past decade, you've seen the shift: subscription services increasingly replaced hardware purchases. Online file storage replaced on-site servers. Voice-as-a-service replaced the PBX in the backroom. Single purpose machines — such as faxes, postage meters, and GPS devices — gave way to software.

Capital expenses shift to operating expenses. If you use Google Apps, you no longer need an email server, a file server, or an office-suite app server. Pay Google a monthly fee, and they'll handle your email and store as many files as you can create.

By now, a savvy IT pro knows the lesson: before you make a major purchase, explore alternatives. About to buy hardware? Look for software options.

If you have to buy hardware, consider alternatives. We tend to replace a server, a desktop, or a laptop with a newer model: a new laptop comes in, the old laptop goes out. Purchasing managers have perfected the process: when your laptop ages to around three years, you replace it.

Rethink your devices. What's really needed? A desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone? All four? Two? Each of the device types offers a useful set of capabilities, and some devices — such as "phablets" and two-in-ones (tablet/keyboard devices) — challenge category distinctions. Early adopters proved that tablet-only or smartphone-only work is possible but requires a change of both tools and mindset. A different, simpler device might be all you need.

Rethink your operating system. Again, what's really needed? If you use Google Apps, might a Chromebook (or Chromebox) replace a legacy Windows or Mac laptop? With a Chromebook, a person logs in and can then manage email, collaborate on documents, work on the web, and participate in voice and video conferences. For many of us, that's all we need. The reduced time spent managing patches, updates, and anti-virus software also helps.

Rethink your solutions. Newer technologies sometimes offer simpler solutions than older apps. For example, Hangouts handles browser-based, multi-person meetings much easier than most legacy meeting apps. Similarly, Chromebox for Meetings offers an affordable, powerful alternative to traditional small office conferencing systems. Quip combines messaging, documents, and spreadsheet collaboration — all in a single, easy-to-use app. The "default" choice from a legacy provider might now be matched by a clever combination of lower-priced hardware working with smarter software.

Any type of organizational change — a move to a new office, a new budget year, or an organizational restructuring — presents the opportunity to review your needs. Rethink your options before you routinely replace equipment.

You might just discover, like my friend did, different tools and services that better meet your needs at a lower cost.

Have you rethought the devices you use at work? Has a Chromebook, tablet, or phone replaced a legacy laptop for you or a colleague? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.

About Andy Wolber

Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.

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