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The Great Divide

The key message delivered at this year's InfoComm ?Manufacturers Forum? was one most AV systems integrators have heard at least a dozen times before. ?We have a weakness in the AV industry on the IT side,? said Andrew Edwards, president and CEO of Extron Electronics. ?Unless it's addressed, it will be a big issue over the next five years.?

The key message delivered at this year's InfoComm “Manufacturers Forum” was one most AV systems integrators have heard at least a dozen times before. “We have a weakness in the AV industry on the IT side,” said Andrew Edwards, president and CEO of Extron Electronics. “Unless it's addressed, it will be a big issue over the next five years.”

As for what to do about that weakness, the top AV manufacturers once again urged the integrators in attendance to get more IT training and hire more IT-literate help — or run the risk of getting shoved out of their respective channel by IT companies better prepared to handle next-generation product lines.

This time, however, the response from a number of AV integrators was a bit prickly.

Many systems integrators have been aggressively beefing up their IT capability for several years now. To them, there's an underlying issue that's emerged to be just as important as whether or not they have the experience needed to work with new products that live on the network — the amount of stridency and support they're getting from their manufacturing partners.

SUPPORTING IT ISSUES

“While some AV products that are migrating to IT infrastructure are buggy at first — and, in many cases, require several firmware updates before they're stable — our real issue is with the support provided by some of these manufacturers,” explains Blaine Brown, director of technology for Indianapolis-based Sensory Technologies. “In many cases, technical support staff will not acknowledge a problem exists until after a fix has been released. Also, in some cases, they seem to have limited ability to assist with troubleshooting their own product in more complex IT environments.”

For their part, the executives manning the InfoComm panel — a group that also included Gerry Remers, president and COO of Christie Digital Systems; George Feldstein, president of Crestron Electronics; Michael MacDonald, executive vice president of Harman Pro Group; and Rick Snyder, president of Tandberg — could be excused if they were caught off-guard by this backlash.

The problems, some integrators say, are with a number of smaller and mid-sized manufacturing partners that they feel aren't assuming enough accountability for their IT-related products. Network compatibility is often overstated by these vendors, they claim, and when problems inevitably crop up, the integrator is too often left on their own to figure things out.

“Tandberg, Crestron, AMX, and Extron are some of the few companies that actually are extremely helpful when it comes to network support,”says John Chong, project manager and field engineer for New York–based Real Time Services. “But for the most part, network support has been our problem to deal with, especially with Wi-Fi stuff.”

According to some integrator veterans, the inability of some manufacturers to make products that are compatible with network security protocols is most troublesome.

One integrator cites the example of working with products that are incorrectly listed as “LDAP-ready” (a label implying that any of the product's associated applications can be accessed by the main network login once it's installed). Frequently, this LDAP-readiness only extends to a few specific operating environments.

“When we go out to a site with a product that's listed as ‘LDAP-ready,' and the ability is only partially set up, that just opens up a whole can of worms,” says Kris Vollrath, vice president of Advanced Technologies Group for West Chester, Pa.–based Advanced AV. “If we were a true partner, the manufacturer would say, ‘This LDAP application only extends to a certain level,' but they're afraid for that to get out there. They just decide to deal with it down the road. There needs to be a lot more shared information between manufacturer and dealer. And if these manufacturers are going to live in an IT world, they're going to have to become much more standards based.”

IN SEARCH OF HIGHER STANDARDS

A number of other integrators stress the need for key manufacturing partners to adopt the same level of product-quality vigilance that's often found in the IT world. “You do find a level of quality within IT products like Cisco that makes them seem more fully tested before they hit the market,” Sensory Technologies' Brown says.

One of Vollrath's colleagues, Travis Lisk, director of technical training for Advanced AV, notes a recent technical problem involving a top manufacturer of videoconferencing technology. “They keep sending us stuff asking, ‘Can you try this out? Can you try that out?' Well, we're trying to set something up for a client, and we don't have time to experiment for them,” he says.

Speaking for the wider AV business, Rich Mavrogeanes, founder and chief technology officer for Wallingford, Conn.–based VBrick Systems, concedes, “I think the problem is in the video-over-IP space — you have a whole bunch of people who have entered that channel who are sort of video-centric. But the vendors themselves have to do a better job on the network citizenship of their devices.”

This is the reason Sensory benchmarks every product it uses in-house before taking it into the field.

“Whenever there's a new product or technology, we spend a lot of R&D time and money to make sure we're comfortable with it,” Brown says. “We make sure we can integrate it, and it's not going to suffer any security irregularities before we offer it as a solution to the customer. We want to avoid running into large failures on big projects that might have hundreds of the devices [in question] installed on the network.”

Of course, no amount of pre-project testing can ensure total reliability in all network environments. Just as concerning to integrators is the level of technical support they often receive when things don't go right in the field.

“Our biggest issue is technical support,” Lisk says. “Even if it's our best tech who has the problem, [the manufacturer] will still start that person at the back of the line. Then they'll ask him, ‘Did you make sure the power was on?' Even manufacturers that know that we're a premier dealer still give us the main number to call, so we have to go through Tier 1 tech support when what we really need is someone who knows the product. It often takes two hours for someone to call us back. If your call gets answered by a receptionist, your name will get put in a queue — and it can be four hours before you hear from someone. I've had guys say, ‘I'm not calling tech support because I can figure the problem out myself in the same amount of time it will take to get someone useful on the phone.'”

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE?

Compounding the issue is the fact that manufacturing problems are often discovered at the point of network integration.

“That means the problem is affecting the entire the system, and we can't just go do something else until they get back to us,” Lisk adds. “We could have someone spinning their wheels for a good four hours before someone calls them.”

According to Vollrath, this issue became so vexing to one engineer working on his team that he quit the AV business and went back into the IT world. “The manufacturers are demanding that we bring in IT people, but they have to understand that they have responsibilities as well.”

At least in terms of dialog, officials for the pro AV sector's top manufacturers acknowledge that they too have a key role in ensuring the AV business doesn't botch things up when it comes to network interoperability. “Support today is all about the network and the application, not the audio products that our people know so well,” Harman Pro Group's MacDonald said at the InfoComm Manufacturers Forum panel. “We always want our dealers to know more, but sometimes you have to hold the mirror up and say that it's a real challenge to get people who are IT proficient.”

Christie Digital's Remers added, “Our dealers need to be able to pick up the phone and get a real person, not a voicemail message,” he said. “When you have guys out in the field, and they're seeing something on a screen that needs fixing, you need someone with technical knowledge.”

As for gaining that technical knowledge, there's also acknowledgement among manufacturers that many integrators have made significant strides of late in terms of closing the IT-knowledge gap. “The questions we're getting asked are increasingly sophisticated,” Mavrogeanes says. “‘How do I support IGNP Version 3 or source-specific multicast versus IGN Version 2 and have my rendezvous points set?' We're getting more questions like that, which is a great indicator of the channel taking on the knowledge it needs to be successful.”

Concurrently, Mavrogeanes stressed the need for both manufacturers and their dealer partners to “be pragmatic and not point fingers.”After all, the products in question are more complicated than ever, and problems are inevitable. “The proposition we offer is increasingly complex,” he notes. “We're not just delivering appliances anymore.”

Daniel Frankel is a Los Angeles–based writer. He can be reached at daniel.frankel@variety.com.



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