Can't We All Just Get Along?

At get-togethers in European cities, it's not uncommon for everyone to speak a different language. The sheer geography of the continent demands that different cultures be thrown together, whether they can communicate smoothly or not. Luckily, people are adaptable, and while the conversation may be stilted, everyone usually manages to be understood.

Depending on how it's constructed, the same cannot always be said for technology. Systems are compatible with one another, or they're not. And in a young industry where different technologies are being introduced at breakneck speed, success in bringing all devices together into one seamless configuration can sometimes seem as tough as, well...rocket science.

"The biggest challenge that the industry has right now is that there are multiple protocols available, and there are different manufacturers and different products that are being implemented in very different ways," observed Ethan Wetzell, Iris-Net/NetMax product specialist at Telex in Burnsville, MN. "The industry as a whole is evolving toward more of an integrated industry at large-with audio, video, and IT coming together to form one complete system. We are seeing entire systems being comprised of separate subsystems: the conference room interacts with the boardroom, which interacts with the lecture hall, which may involve distance learning. These different subsystems are getting more feature-rich and complex, which requires a higher level of control, monitoring, supervision, and distribution protocols."

So how does one make everything fit together? As most systems contractors know, that depends on the protocols the manufacturers have based their technologies on. "There are many different protocols, and nothing has emerged as a clear industry standard for distribution," Wetzell said. "Sort of the same way AES-EBU evolved as a standard for a lot of different protocols, nothing has really evolved to become that kind of de facto standard for everything. We have EtherSound, CobraNet, and a variety of other protocols that all need to be able to communicate, and they are all different platforms."

From a control perspective, Bill Schafer, director of product and channel development at Crestron Electronics in Rockleigh, NJ, believes that while standardization is positive, he doesn't see it occurring for quite some time. "We are not a robotic society," he said. "I don't think, in my lifetime, that we will unify a standard protocol within our industry. We all have our viewpoints and our ways of doing things, and we all think that one is better than the other. The thought of having a unified protocol in this industry is a wonderful concept. I hope it comes to that one day; I just think that it will be during my kids' lifetime and not mine."

Still, most agree that standardization would simplify matters. Brian Huff, CTS-D, supervisory consultant at Acentech in Cambridge, MA, commented, "The biggest problem with control systems is the proprietary nature of programming. There is a disconnect between the end-user and the people on the inside of the industry in understanding the level of effort and the level of expertise that is required of a programmer to create attractive and fully functional touchpanels. Both AMX and Crestron are moving toward open standards such as Java, and there is a lot more programming talent available to work within those formats, but they are not there yet. When that happens, it will open things up for a lot more talent to be able to participate in code programming."

Schafer argues that Crestron, despite its status as a proprietary control system manufacturer, is an open system. "People say that Crestron is not open, but we actually are. We use a standard language set that has been around for a long time; it's just formatted differently so that it is easier for an AV installer to understand, because they are not generally code writers. Since 1999, we jumped on the Ethernet bandwagon and dealt with IT integration. We are constantly making sure that we are actively pursuing all of the different formats that are out there so that we are writing the integration hooks to be able to interface all of those different things. Our Integrated Partnership department is responsible for that, so that no matter what all of these other manufacturers are doing, we can communicate with their equipment."

One of the dangers of simplifying things too much, however, is that consumers will grow too comfortable tinkering with their own systems. Just as everyone with a computer is capable of being a graphic artist-thus leading to poor design-every homeowner runs the risk of moonlighting as a programmer. "Some people argue that this should be so easy that anyone in the world can program it. Our argument is that it shouldn't," Schafer declared. "That would dilute it, and it wouldn't make it robust, because the person who is a stockbroker during the day is going to go home and try to program their automation at night. They don't know what they are doing, it's not going to go well, and they will think that automation is no good."

At Telex, product developers aim to address digital audio networking compatibility by building systems that are as open as possible, Wetzell noted. "Our solution is to try to remain as flexible as we possibly can to evolving technology. Things are changing, and new technologies are emerging on, literally, a daily basis. We need to peer into our crystal ball and see what is evolving in the industry by way of new standards and protocols to anticipate what is going to be coming in the future."

The company's Iris-Net and NetMax systems are constructed on an open architecture, Wetzell added. "As new technologies are brought into the industry, we are able to bring them into our system very quickly and easily because of the way we have designed the system from the ground up. The concept behind Iris-Net and NetMax was to build it this way so that we can create a robust system solution, not only within the Telex family, but we are actually going to be inviting third parties to come to the plate and integrate additional hardware through software development kits for our system."

In the interest of consistency, most technology developers hope to see standardization in the future. For now, the goal is to provide flexibility. Wetzell concluded, "In the interest of making our lives much easier, we need to get to more of a standardized platform. I often find myself jealous of the IT world, because these are companies that are able to sit down and actually agree on standards. One of the things that drives their ability to do that is the use of open standards and protocols-TCP/IP and Ethernet. Our challenge is twofold: one, to try to move toward these open standards to be able to implement them into all sorts of products to get the integration; and the interoperability that the industry needs and is going to be using over the next couple of years. At the same time, we need to remain open."

Acentech...www.acentech.com

Crestron Electronics...www.crestron.com

Telex... www.telex.com