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IT Infiltration

As convergence continues, will AV and IT coexist?

Two years ago, Tech Data launched its “digital environments” specialized business unit (SBU), touting it as a “one-stop source” for products and accessories from such manufacturers as NEC, InFocus, JVC, and Russound, while offering service and support for everything from LCD displays to home theater projectors to home audio and structured wiring. “IT training and certified systems engineers are available to assist resellers in understanding the technology applications of digital convergence and how they can enter or expand their market presence in this category,” a company announcement stated.

While acknowledging a level of “fear, uncertainty, and doubt” in the pro AV world regarding the prospect of IT companies getting into such traditionally AV-centric endeavors as home theater installation and digital signage, Dan Smith, Tech Data's marketing manager for peripheral products, says the shift represents a natural progression for the firm as IT and AV technologies continue to merge.

Computer companies like Tech Data have been selling projection and display equipment for years, he notes. Besides, within the AV channel, Tech Data acts like any other AV distributor — albeit, one that ranks 107th on the 2006 Fortune 500 list with net sales exceeding $20 billion in fiscal 2005, as well as a network of distribution centers that can reach 85 percent of the U.S. population by next-day ground. “Our AV business is on scale with the largest AV specialty dealers today,” Smith explains. “Cabling, wall plates, distribution, projection screens —we're supporting all the core technologies. If you look at our line card, and you look at the brand names we carry, we're on par with the rest of the industry. We have a dedicated AV staff with a separate website and a separate 800 number for the AV market. When you call us, you're not calling an IT company. We want to give our customers an industry-specific experience.”

Competing directly with Tech Data and a bit bigger in size, reporting $28.8 billion in 2005 revenue, Ingram Micro is also aggressively reaching out to AV channels, including residential services and digital signage. “There's some market saturation in the IT world,” concedes Irene Chow, senior category manager, digital home and digital signage for Ingram Micro. “We're always looking for growth opportunities that make sense, and we believe anything that leverages the network is pretty much fair game.”

As for supporting IT dealers and integrators in their efforts to gain a piece of the pro AV pie, Chow says it's a natural progression. “The network end of the business is hard to grasp, and IT resellers know it like the back of their hand,” she says.

In fact, it's that knowledge of IT networks that makes technologies like videoconferencing a natural fit for CDW Corp., notes Brian Schwartz, a technology specialist for the company, which posted $6.3 billion in sales for the last fiscal year. “We work very closely with companies like Polycom,” he says, noting CDW's recent focus on the videoconferencing market.

Remaining afloat

With IT and AV merging so much in the digital realm, and well-heeled computer distributors eager to transition their constituents into the AV market, are AV integrators giving in — as Tech Data's Smith puts it — to fear, anxiety, and doubt? Yes and no. Certainly, the convergence between the IT and AV disciplines has been occurring for quite some time now — the very IT-oriented Miami Computer Supply (aka MCSi) is testament to that fact, having grown into perhaps the largest AV integrator on the planet before it went bankrupt several years ago.

Still, from trade organizations like InfoComm International and NSCA to AV systems integrators themselves, there's now a rather intense focus — and a notable sense of urgency — on developing IT training and IT-fluent personnel. InfoComm, for example, offers a curriculum called “AV/IT Convergence — the Networking Track,” while NSCA also offers a robust track of IT-related courses that are both technical and business oriented in nature. “That's what our big push is — we're starting a whole training program to teach convergence ourselves,” says NSCA President Chuck Wilson. “We're going to help our people from within develop these network integration skills.”

While there's a general consensus among AV pros that they'll have to gain a greater technical understanding of computer networks in order to compete in a world in which their products and services increasingly connect with them, concern isn't all that great that IT companies will take over segments beyond those driven by commodity-level products such as LCD projectors. “Their mission is to handle data, and mine is to handle communication,” says Kevin Sandler, president and CEO of Phoenix-based ExhibitOne, which specializes in the courtroom presentation market. “I just don't think we're going to see a lot of these IT guys saying, ‘I need to learn more about Extron matrix switchers,' because it's just too far off from what their mission is.”

CDW's Schwartz confirms that notion: “Our focus will remain on the technologies that enable convergence —bandwidth and networking gear, not so much on high-end receivers,” he says.

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