As convergence continues, will AV and IT coexist?
Andy Sellers, a principal in Indianapolis-based AV integrator Sensory Technologies, says he's yet to see significant infiltration by IT companies within the teleconferencing channel his company specializes in. However, as the technology his company deals in becomes increasingly inextricable with the computer networks of his clients, he envisions a day in the not-so-distant future when dealers and systems integrators of IT and AV technologies regularly tread on each other's turf.
“We're preparing for it,” Sellers says. “Our director of technology is a Microsoft-certified engineer who's much more of an IT guy than an AV guy. We've gone as far as to write reimbursements for college-level classes and industry certifications for any employee who wants to take them. The last thing we want to happen is five years from now we look back and find that IT companies took all of our videoconferencing business.”
As digital audio and video content moves to Cat5 cabling, Jeff Galatro, owner of Sacramento, CA-based Commercial Sound and Video, believes the IT and AV worlds will be “crossing each other like crazy,” he says. “I've been learning both sides, so I don't have to learn about pointing fingers.”
Other systems integrators see the threat of IT infiltration into the pro AV market as more immediate. Jim Crawly, director of integration sales for South Field, MI-based Blue Water Technologies, notes that big IT distributors are fast moving into markets such as education, sapping his business along the way. “We're seeing a lot more computer companies taking on AV or offering just the AV on bids, and the inverse isn't happening,” he explains. “I can tell you about all the recent school bids we've dropped out of because half of the bidders were computer companies selling things cheap. They're completely watering down the bidding process because they're not really experienced with AV integration, and they tend to underbid.”
With the growing demand of convergence, Andrew Sellers, a principal at Indianapolis-based AV systems integration firm and conferencing solutions provider Sensory Technologies, is dedicated to staying ahead of the technology curve in order to compete with potential IT competitors that might encroach on his turf.
For now, AV integrators say that the two disciplines are fairly segregated on the systems design and installation front. However, a number of big companies that have traditionally manufactured or distributed IT hardware and software have moved into the pro AV space in recent years. Huntsville, AL-based Avocent Corp. is one good example. The company's legacy dates back more than 20 years in the computer business — it has long specialized in server equipment that enables operators to remotely control their networks from back-office locations.
Reporting revenue of $370 million in 2004, Avocent now controls about 65 percent of the market for keyboard, video, and mouse switching (KVM). Much of the company's research has been focused on consolidating cable — a fairly straightforward task for low-bandwidth mouse and keyboard signals, but one that gets quite a bit trickier when it comes to VGA. “To switch and move VGA across cabling is kind of an art,” notes Matt Nelson, director of marketing for Avocent. “Lots of different compression technologies are involved.”
Three years ago, Avocent introduced LongView Wireless, a KVM switching technology that allows operators to remotely control a PC or server from as far away as 200 feet without any cables. “What we were doing with VGA over distance turned out to be better than anything else on the market,” Nelson says. “We started getting all these calls asking us if we could use LongView to connect to a projector or other large-format display. We started to look at where our sales were going — education, corporate, hotels, and hospitality — places that the AV guys are real familiar with. That kind of got us involved in the pro AV space.”
While it now has a dedicated sales staff for the AV market, Nelson estimates that less than 10 percent of Avocent's revenue comes from that channel. But as the company struggles to grow its market share any further in the relatively mature server business, he thinks AV revenue could ultimately eclipse that derived from the data-center market. “The pro AV space has opened up a whole new world of sales channels for our products,” he says. “We're getting them in places where they've never been used before.”
Nelson adds that Avocent is looking to develop channels for AV products within markets including “education, corporate, hotel, and hospitality — places where the AV guys are real familiar.”
For its part, Avocent has succeeded in adapting its IT technology for the AV market. At least in AV circles, more troubling has been the notable incursion into their market by IT distribution giants like Clearwater, FL-based Tech Data Corp., Vernon Hills, IL-based CDW Corp., and Santa Ana, CA-headquartered Ingram Micro. These companies sell name-brand pro AV products — everything from projection and display equipment to videoconferencing technology — at low margins, either directly to end-users, or through IT and AV dealers and integrators. They all emphasize the consulting aspects of their respective businesses, seeking to be technological oracles for a wide range of vertical markets on most things relating to both IT and AV. Through large regional distribution hubs, these companies also do a small amount of systems design and building.