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Wake-Up Call

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Globalization Helps Asia’s Own Slant In Getting AV And IT To Communicate

For anyone who has followed the revolution in computing that began in the early 1980s with the introduction of the IBM PC, the convergence of IT and AV must have seemed entirely predictable. It seems strange to think now, when every PC is a multimedia PC capable of reproducing amazing sound and compelling video, that there was a time when computers could only handle data. The power of digital technology swept all before it, making analog technologies seem somehow quaint and old-fashioned. Something very similar has been happening in the audiovisual world.

That convergence is happening is doubted by no-one. “Yes, we absolutely are experiencing convergence between AV and IT,” says Rashid Skaf, chief executive officer of AMX, “We have been doing this for eight years, and are now seeing more acceptance by IT managers that collaboration equipment like ours resides on their network.”

It’s important, though, to quantify what is meant by IT/AV convergence. In its simplest—and earliest—form, IT/AV convergence meant the ability to control audiovisual devices, such as projectors, over the existing IT network infrastructure. Projectors could be turned on or off remotely, and a central support desk could check on the status of a lamp, ensuring that it was replaced before it expired and caused inconvenience. All that was required for an audiovisual device to become ‘just another’ node on the network was an Ethernet port and IP capability. Today, even entrylevel projectors—such as the recently announced NP400, NP500 and NP600 from NEC—feature an RJ45 interface. It wasn’t long before other conference room equipment— lights, for example, or blinds—could similarly be remotely controlled, allowing for worthwhile energy savings.

NETWORK APPLICATIONS
But over time, IT/AV convergence has begun to mean much more as applications once considered to be analog applications—telephony, for example, together with videoconferencing and security systems— have been absorbed into the digital domain. The growing demand for ever-increasing performance and functionality has been readily met by digital end-point technologies—and the natural outcome is that these endpoints should communicate via an existing digital network. The catalyst behind convergence

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has unquestionably been the availability of high bandwidth networks—although any IT manager will always want more, and is nervous about sharing what he or she considers a precious resource with applications, such as video streaming, that are known resource hogs.

These higher capacity networks have responded to—or perhaps enabled— the unified communications that are, increasingly, becoming central to the knowledge deployment strategy of every major multinational. There was a time when the goal of every major organisation was to give all its employees access to the same data: now, the goal is to provide access to the same information. It’s a subtle, but important, difference. AV has become a business-critical application—no less than accounts receivable, for example, or customer relationship management.

Not only has convergence transformed legacy applications— it has, in effect, enabled the development of new generations of applications. Not least of these is digital signage, a strategic application that combines video, audio and networks to deliver an integrated solution which is as much IT as it is AV. The Asian market has proven itself particularly receptive. For equipment manufacturers, integrators/ installers and end users, the potential and promise of a world in which IT and AV are integrated are significant. Certainly, enthusiasm for convergence is high in Asia—for a number of reasons. Rashid Skaf again:

“Convergence in Asia is as sophisticated as it is in Europe and the US,” he says. “In fact, in some ways we see more rapid adoption in Asia, because cost-effectiveness is mandatory, because the economies of scale are greater, because there are so many large scale IT installations and because the large number of American and European multinationals that are establishing themselves here are looking to implement similar infrastructures to those they already have.”

That point is echoed by Stan Jaworski, chief marketing officer for VBrick Systems, Inc. who specialize in the provision of live, online networked video solutions. “The convergence of AV and IT is the same for Asia as it is for North America and Europe with respect to the network,” he says. “With a global economy, large enterprises have global networks— so it’s imperative that both IT and AV work seamlessly worldwide.”

Mike Buchanan, head of marketing for IT peripherals supplier The Electrone Group, sees another reason. “Take the security market,” he says. “Historically, CCTV has been an analog marketplace—and older-established economies have struggled to make the transition from the analogue world to the digital world. In Asia, that’s much less true—there aren’t the same numbers of legacy systems, which means that companies can more quickly embrace new technologies.”

CAN AV CAPITALIZE?
Implicit in Buchanan’s remark is the fact that there are opportunities for companies who are prepared to seize them. As Danny Ng, senior sales manager at Hong Kong installer/integrator Ultra Active Technology points out: “Convergence is neither good nor bad. It’s what’s happening.” The recurring question, however, is whether AV systems integrators and installers are as well-placed to capitalize on those opportunities as their counterparts in the IT world?

Mike Buchanan sounds a note of warning. “The combination of cutprice legacy systems and the business costs of retraining staff have encouraged traditional AV installers to stick with what they know,” he says. “There has been little perceived advantage for many to take the pain to digitise their systems. However, many IT resellers, unconstrained by these historical factors, are now perfectly equipped with the network knowledge to expand into this market— treating AV equipment like any other network device and add it to their product offerings.”

David Penrose is now with the Asian office of Kramer Electronics, which develops solutions in video, audio and computer signal management, but has spent much of his recent past working with an AV systems integrator in Bangkok. “There’s unquestionably an opportunity,” he says. “We now have a transport medium that has become available to us—one that is also quite mature. If we, as a systems integrator, don’t know how IT systems work, we can either learn, or find someone who knows to do it for us. But the technology is proven. So now it opens up more ways for us to do what we do best.” Whether manufacturer or integrator, the message is clear: adapt, learn—and thrive.

Perhaps the single most significant learning challenge is to adapt to a new, more complex and often longer sales cycle—a sales cycle that will, increasingly, involve the IT organisation. Once upon a time, AV departments were largely self-contained and autonomous, with their own budgets and decision-making processes: increasingly, they’re answerable to—if they haven’t already been consumed by—the IT department.

“The two work in different ways,” notes Danny Ng. “The AV guy will focus on the end result, while the IT guy usually needs much more detail about ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘why’. That makes the sale process longer.”

“Yes, it makes the sales process even longer than before,” agrees Analog Way’s William Roddes, who was recently named as the company’s Asia-Pacific branch managing director, “because we have to spend more time with more and different people. We have to help our customers to fully understand how it all works. We’re proposing bigger, more complex solutions that touch far more parts of the company—and that means that we really need to have a stronger relationship with our customers.”

A MORE RATIONAL APPROACH
Whether or not the sales process is a more difficult, more arduous one, however, depends on where you’re coming from. For an AV-centric company, it may be new and different— but for companies with a strong IT orientation, it’s not nearly so daunting. Rashid Skaf relishes what he sees as the more rational approach of buyers from the IT side of a customer.

“The IT people really aid the process in terms of design, specification and evaluation,” he says, “because they are typically driven more to ensure the solution selected meets the requirements of the end user: they’re much less driven by cost or budget. So, instead of it being a case of the lowest bid—which can be a long and drawn out process of negotiation and blind bidding, in which the typical result is good for the budget but no use to the end user— we are now exposed to a much more structured approach which we can manage more efficiently.”

According to Stan Jaworski, it can be a question of ensuring that any conflict between the often differing requirements of the AV department and the IT department can be resolved. “The reality is,” he says, “that the concerns of the IT department and the AV department are drastically different—so when dealing in an environment where the two worlds collide, more time has to be factored in to make sure that both sides are comfortable that their issues are being addressed and that all of the concerns are put to rest.”

“The need is for both industries to understand what the other does, and how the two are complementary,” says David Penrose. “We will always have problems if we try to make one IT/AV industry: they just can’t fit together. The two industries will continue to get closer together, but I can’t see them ever merging. They are just too different.” AV integrators and installers have unique skills and knowledge, and these will continue to be in demand—even if that demand exists within a different context.

Rashid Skaf again. “Convergence between AV and IT is proceeding smoother than most people thought,” he says. “IT managers are embracing the challenge as they consider the devices to be just another network node. I mean really, what is the difference between a video projector and a computer monitor? Isn’t an audio conference device just a telephone? Bringing these two disciplines into one creates a huge opportunity for growth for all those involved. We see a great future for all those who embrace this change.”

Of course, Skaf exaggerates to some extent to make a point. From an IT point of view, projectors and phones are IP nodes, and thus no different to a computer monitor. It is, after all, said that, today, more than 80 percent of AV products are networked. But an AV integrator knows different— he understands the complexities of specifying and installing an appropriate projector, and he knows how to achieve optimum sound quality from an audio conferencing system. Key to the success of AV integrators and manufacturers is to be aware of, and to capitalize on, their superior knowledge of audiovisual equipment and applications— those don’t go away—and to learn how to apply that expertise in a new environment. If manufacturers and integrators/installers not only accept this new, converged world but embrace it, ensuring that their technologies and skills are appropriate for this paradigm shift, the outlook is positive indeed.

Ian McMurray was European Marketing Manager for the DLP division of Texas Instruments from 1996 to 2003. He now writes regularly for a number of AV industry publications.

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