With the trend of AV technology moving toward systems that are increasingly easy to program and use, who needs system integrators and programmers?
For those touring InfoComm's booths at the Anaheim Convention Center in June, it quickly became apparent that the pro AV industry has been overtaken by a kind of simplicity movement.
Richardson, Texas–based control systems giant AMX, for example, greeted visitors to its two sprawling booths with the call to action “simplify.” This slogan was prominently displayed on marketing materials touting such offerings as AMX's Systems Design Library, a package of ready-made AV solutions “designed to support AMX dealers and distributors by simplifying the sales process.”
A little ways down the convention hall, San Francisco–based Cloud Systems proudly displayed the slogan “control simplified” to tout the 2.2 beta version of Atmospherics, an open-sourced software solution designed to enable off-the-shelf PC equipment to displace proprietary AV-control hardware.
Meanwhile, over at the Philips booth, the phrase “sense and simplicity” was used to introduce innovative new features like the “settings assistant,” which allows end-users of the company's 63-inch plasma to calibrate the display using a tool that functions much like the one an optometrist uses to determine an eyeglass prescription.
Scott Norder, executive vice president of business development for AMX, sums up the thinking behind the buzzword this way: “How do we get more robust, easier to use systems in the hands of end-users through an integration channel that is labor-constrained?”
As Norder explains it, “Our goal is to make any system easier to operate for the end-user — not necessarily so that they can customize their system themselves, just so it's easier to use. Secondly, our goal is allowing integrators to implement our systems more quickly, more profitably, and more reliably.”
Of course, the question naturally comes to mind, if manufacturers of pro AV products make their wares too easy to use, might end-users one day seek to handle their own boardroom, classroom, or home theater setup? Or, to put more “simply,” is the pro AV industry simplifying itself out of existence? At least for now, the vast majority of AV systems integrators don't seem too worried about that.
Blaine Brown, director of technology for Indianapolis-based Sensory Technologies, sees what he calls the natural evolution of AV technology. Core service offerings such as calibrating projectors (see sidebar) and programming control systems, he says, will indeed become more simplified and less of a differentiating factor in determining who gets business as integrators move into newer, more complicated technologies.
“On the surface, this would seem like it could be an issue,” Brown explains. “But if you look at the history of the industry, there's always been some new technology on the horizon that makes what we do as an integrator valuable to a customer. Technology is always evolving. There's always going to be more complex things that come down the road that are going to allow integrators to survive. Five years from now, programming control systems might be easy — just plug and play. If that's the case, there will be other complexities that will arise that will create a need for us.”
According to Andrew Sellers, Brown's boss at Sensory Technologies, it would be great if this industry could keep the mystery intact to its technology somewhat. “It's just the nature of the beast. As technology necessarily advances, it simplifies itself,” he says. “We all recall the days of [CRT] projector setup, when you had to turn the lights off, grid up, and align the tools — that was a big deal. Today, anybody can mount a projector on a ceiling and make it work. It doesn't mean we've lost business — we've been asked to do other things the customer doesn't understand.”
So what, then, do Sensory Technologies officials see as these new, differentiating services? Ironically, as the worlds of AV and IT technology blend together, they say the ability to better understand how their systems run on IP networks gives them an edge.
“Whether it's a control system, a videoconferencing unit, or any other kind of technology you're putting into a facility, the challenge is to establish a quality of service on an IP network,” Brown says. “That's where we differentiate our services now. The client's IT staff knows how to maintain the network and its core services. But give them something like videoconferencing, and chances are they won't know how that works.”
For his part, Norder sees AMX's push toward ease of use — the company has implemented another feature into its software that stores a library of device drivers, enabling its controllers to automatically recognize new equipment attached to an AV system — as being more of a “win” for the integrator than the end-user.
“This business still requires an understanding of what's going on, which most end-users don't have,” Norder explains. “We would like to help integrators do more jobs better and faster. How will they get more jobs if they have to start from scratch every time?”
Steven Grosskopf, new business development manager for New York City–based integrator Real Time Services, believes plug-and-play simplifies matters for everyone. He welcomes any changes that make AV control technology less arcane, noting, “Most of us feel often feel like we're held hostage by programmers anyway.”
Grosskopf cites a growing demand within the corporate realm for low-cost, easy-to-set-up systems, specifically noting a recent install the company did for pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in its New York offices.
“Most of their rooms are what you'd call simple,” he explains. “They don't want to pay for a big bloated control system. The cost of programming these things can be really prohibitive. If you're looking at a simple $20,000 AV system, and the cost to program and set up the control system is $15,000 to $20,000, that doesn't make a lot of sense. When you start adding all those parts to the project it becomes cost-prohibitive. If we're able to come in with a nice interface and a nice system, they're more likely to say, ‘Yeah, let's do it.'”
But what about billings for added services once a system is up and running? If a client can swap out a DVD player or projector themselves once a system is established, doesn't that cut into the integration channel's revenue?
Yes and no, says Ken Kuespert, president of Niles, Mich.–based TPC Technologies. He concedes that his company might miss out on revenue if its education clients are able to head to Best Buy, purchase an out-of-the-box DVD player or projector, and then attach it to an established AV system themselves. However, he doesn't mind if his company's clients can fend for themselves at least in part. “It could be a two-hour drive for us to spend 10 minutes swapping out a projector,” he explains. “It may be good that they're doing the little things.”
No matter how demystified AV technology becomes, Brown doesn't foresee Sensory Technologies' corporate clients taking such matters into their own hands in the near future.
“To get to the point where the Average Joe feels comfortable programming his room, even if the tools get easier to use, I just can't foresee the business going away from us any time soon,” he notes. “However, some integrators may feel more threatened, especially if their target niche is a group of university folks who feel like they can do anything themselves.”
Indeed, Kuespert notes that several of TPC's biggest clients have sought out technical educational outreach offered by the big control-system manufacturers to better understand the proprietary programming languages. “They still hire us to do the initial programming, but this lets them do maintenance down the road,” he says.
According to Sellers, the threat to his business isn't necessarily related to AV control systems becoming simpler. His company recently met with Cloud Systems officials to discuss Atmospherics, a product Sellers describes as interesting.
“They're trying to make things as plug-and-play as possible,” he explains. “It's almost embracing the fact that the end-user can set up and reconfigure the control software. I'm not sure I have an issue with Cloud.”
However, Sellers does take exception with programs like Crestron's A+, which offers end-users in the education market insight into the company's proprietary control systems. To him, the threat to the integration channel doesn't come from AV manufacturers making easier-to-use products; it's more a matter of them dispersing AV industry knowledge to the general public.
“They're paying for higher-end techs to go to school, where they teach them how to program control systems,” Sellers says. “And with each one of those guys that participates in that program, it takes business out of our pocket. That's the threat that I see.”
Daniel Frankel is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.