Why You Need a Backup Strategy for Your Smartphone

This week I learned that, as a computing device that holds critical data, it is important to always have a current copy of all my mobile data available.

Honestly, how diligent are you with your backups? You know those weekly backups that may duplicate hundreds of gigabytes of data.

Until a few years ago, I did not pay too much attention to those backups. I simply moved all that data to a new hard drive every three years or so, well within the suggested life expectancy of a hard drive (about five years). One day, disaster struck, and my only hard drive at the time, a 320 GB model which held virtually all the data of my digital life, simply refused to let the OS boot up. Thanks to the guys at a local data recovery service, I was able to get about 98 percent of the data back, but it was scary enough to make a compelling case for diligent backups on my private PC. This week, I learned that I need to backup my smartphone data as well.

Some time ago, I replaced my previous Android phone with the LG Optimus 2x (or G2x at T-Mobile). I have had issues from the very beginning. The phone kept crashing despite a full charge and no additional apps installed. I never really got around to calling T-Mobile customer support and just accepted the fact that the phone was, for no apparent reason, rebooting four to six times daily. Most recently, the restarts increased to about eight to 12, and the GPS chip stopped working. Since I value Google maps, this was reason enough for me to call T-Mobile for advice and possibly get a replacement phone.

For the first half hour of the call, there was nothing unusual: database checks, app checks, battery checks, and memory checks with someone whose English you can hardly understand. When I arrived at second level support, the language changed and the search for a solution for the crashes and the GPS problem were more systematic. I was told there was a reported problem with the battery of my phone, but the battery was, unfortunately, out of warranty after 90 days. There was apparently also a reported GPS problem. However, the technician wanted to focus on the crashes first.

"Please navigate to your call log, press menu and delete all logs." Delete the call log? I could not quite figure out where this was going. Losing my call log is not what I would consider convenient and is certainly not what I would have expected. I did it anyway. Then I was told, "Please do the same for all text messages." Huh? I knew that my divorce lawyer would have killed me for doing something silly like that, so I denied that request and was told, "I will make a note that you refused deleting your messages." That did not sound too good, but nevertheless, I was hopeful that there was a solution to the problem in sight.

Subsequently, I was asked to delete every application on my phone. At this point, I asked for some details on the actual strategy for solving my problem. I was told that after the app deletion, I would have to delete all images, videos and music files. I also would have to delete my contacts. When the phone was wiped clean, I would be told how to reset the phone to factory settings. T-Mobile would monitor the phone for 72 hours for anomalies and then determine if there is something wrong with the hardware or with some unidentified app. I cannot say that I was very receptive to deleting all that data on the spot and said that might be a problem. The response: "Sir, we are stepping in for LG to provide customer support for your phone. If you do not follow the instructions, I cannot help you."

So, the choices here were to drop the call and accept the malfunctioning phone, or delete all my data as asked and T-Mobile would know after three days if there's something wrong with the hardware in my phone. From T-Mobile's perspective, that makes sense. In the end, they cannot know if there's some app that causes the crashes or not. From the consumer's viewpoint, this strategy does not make sense. I think there are a few hundred pictures on my phone, a few hundred contacts, videos and plenty of music. Killing that data on the spot is like cutting my digital (mobile) lifeline. I'd be nuts had I followed the instructions. I asked the tech support if "I [was] screwed anyway?" to which she agreed (and apologized).

I went off the call after I was told that the GPS problem would need the same tech support strategy, so here I am with my essentially useless G2x. What was interesting is that the obvious and much more useful solution was not suggested – a data backup. There are data backup tools in Android Market available – some powerful tools need root access, which does not make sense for the average user. There are also backup/restore tools for different purposes including messages, call logs, and apps, among others. I am still in the evaluation process regarding which tools make the most sense for me before I call T-Mobile support back. However, I am wondering why T-Mobile itself is not suggesting a complete data backup, why it isn't offering a complete data backup tool and instructing users to back up their phones to a cloud service, and then simply initiating a factory reset?

The more common smartphones become and the more data they will store, it is a reasonable assumption that a backup service may be an additional revenue opportunity for wireless carriers.

The bottom line is that a smartphone can fail he same as any other computing device that stores your valuable data. And like any other computing device, a data backup or a centralized data storage service will become more important, especially as data storage capabilities and media capabilities of smartphones and superphones will increase. We simply need to learn that.

[Editor's note: Apple's iOS 5 launches today with its iCloud backup system. This is a big leap for iPhone and iPad users looking to secure their data in some place more stable than just wherever they last synced their device. As for Android devices, while they benefit from all of Google's cloud services, still do not have an officially supported and sanction backup service. Once Google offers something like this, then Wolfgang can do T-Mobile support's bidding.]

Wolfgang Gruener is Director, digital strategy and content experience at American Eagle, where he specializes in strategic data analysis, user behavior models and information architecture (IA), as well as content strategy and governance. He was also Managing Editor of the website TG Daily and contributor to sites including Tom's Guide and Tom's Hardware.