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Big challenge with hardware subscriptions? Getting what we need, not what someone else wants us to have

Reject the one-size-fits-all approach offered by the cloud giants

Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you the reader choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you're in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

This week's motion is: Renting hardware on a subscription basis is bad for customers.

Call it leasing, equipment rental, or hardware as a service, the idea of NOT owning your computing devices has been around for years. However, many individuals and corporations have been distinctly ambivalent about the idea, feeling that the benefits tend to flow to the suppliers, and most of all, the financers.

Yet the cloud means many organisations have gotten used to not owning all of the server infrastructure their businesses depend on. And the shift to remote working over the last year or two means many IT departments don’t even meet their users – let alone physically touch the client equipment they’re using.

Lastly, sustainability and environmental concerns mean individuals and corporations are thinking harder about the broader costs of “owning” hardware. So, are hardware subscriptions the way forward?

Arguing FOR the motion today is veteran journalist Billy MacInnes, who writes about tech, sustainability, and the channel.

I have a confession to make: the laptop I’m writing on was bought via a 24-month leasing deal. It’s the only way I could afford it. Come to think of it, the phone I use was bought in a similar fashion via a 24-month price plan from my mobile provider. The attractions are obvious: I got the latest model without taking too much of a hit to my income by spreading my payments.

Obviously, there’s a benefit for the leasing company/mobile phone provider, too, otherwise they wouldn’t bother. Clearly, I ended up paying more for the laptop and phone than if I had bought them outright.

I don’t have a problem with that arrangement, and I doubt many other people do either. Where I do have an issue, however, is when the laptop and phone providers started pushing replacement newer models at me as my old deals neared their end and full ownership was finally within my grasp.

Why? Because I didn’t need them. No one does. Think of it this way. Almost since its inception, the overall tenor of messaging from the IT industry has been that no one has been able to get the best out of their business or organisation and the cause of this deficiency was “not enough technology.”

But one thing we learned during the pandemic was that the vast majority of enterprises, organisations, and individuals had, to quote my own phrase, “good enough technology” to deal with it. The truth is that a lot of hardware now falls under the banner of “does the job.” It works, it delivers, it does what we need it to do.

My laptop and my phone are working fine. I don’t need to renew them to suit the release schedule of the laptop and phone vendors. There is no compelling reason to do so. I can choose when I want to change them and what I want to replace them with.

Why should a business be any different? Why should an enterprise make itself hostage to the often dubious planned obsolescence roadmaps of the hardware vendors, especially at a time when there is no conclusive reason for changing equipment?

Also, why would they choose to pay more for the privilege of restricting their choice to one particular vendor when they could be making their own decisions and paying only what they wanted to, using their own money? Even if it’s not their own money, why shouldn’t they borrow it from whatever source they want rather than one specified by the vendor or partner providing the hardware?

It may make sense to hand over control of the company’s hardware purchasing and lifecycle management to an outside organisation but if it can be done so simply and with so little upheaval, why should any deal tie the organisation to a single vendor’s hardware over another? Especially over the long term.

Another strong argument in favor of hardware subscription is it can be more environmentally friendly by including lifecycle management services where older machines are refurbished and recycled. There’s no doubt this can be a major improvement on the lifecycle management practices, assuming there are any, of many companies today.

Locking a business into a continuous upgrade cycle means equipment is going to be replaced more often

But while it’s laudable that an organisation makes provision for dealing with equipment at the end of the subscription, it doesn’t negate the fact that locking a business into a continuous upgrade cycle means equipment is going to be replaced more often.

From an environmental perspective, most of the carbon emissions attached to a piece of end-user IT hardware occur in the manufacturing process, that is, before it is ever used. It stands to reason the best way to stretch the carbon cost is to use the equipment for as long as possible after its manufacture. Reducing the need to replace IT kit could also lead to a reduction in manufacturing, the area that causes most damage to the environment. Strangely, that’s not something the vendors seem keen to talk about.

I’m very happy with my laptop and phone at the moment. When I want to change them, I may well buy new ones through another leasing agreement.

But it will be when I want to and not when the vendors expect me to. In the meantime, I will have done better for the environment by spreading the carbon footprint of my devices over a longer time period compared to replacing them with two new ones. As an added bonus, when I do change them, I will be upgrading to even better models than if I had done so when my original deals expired. Why shouldn’t the same be true for enterprises? ®

Cast your vote below. We'll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate's progress here.

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