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How Software Alternatives Can Address Hardware Supply Chain Issues

Supply Chain
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In recent years, the AV industry has shifted its focus from the features of black boxes to the benefits that solutions and systems provide. While hardware is still essential to the delivery of any AV system, it is clearly becoming more commoditized and less of a focal point. Systems with hardware that does not become quickly outdated and can be repurposed when upgrades occur present the best investment; however, it is the intrigue of software that is changing the dynamic of AV systems. 

By nature, software offers the opportunity for flexible, scalable, and upgradable solutions. While hardware may be at the core of an AV system, it is less identifiable to the user. Most users are concerned with the usability, reliability, and desire to address a need rather than the performance specifications. Though hardware is the foundation upon which software is built, it is the software that establishes the user experience, ease of operation, and memorable interaction.

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Software Plays an Important Role

These days, software is playing an important role in the success of most AV products. Whether serving to set up, configure, customize, or program—software is the key element driving most hardware functionality. In other cases, IT and software solutions have made the need for certain dedicated hardware and physical media virtually obsolete. Additionally, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), wireless signal transport, software-based conferencing, and streaming solutions are further evidence that technology advancement is shifting away from dedicated hardware solutions and toward simplified systems leveraging software-based alternatives.

The reduction of fixed hardware within an installed system is a definite trend. Rather than purpose-based devices that are limited in their capacity or capability—software, IT networks, and the cloud provide clients with the added flexibility, capability, and efficiency necessary for higher-value outcomes. As AV-over-IP solutions become ubiquitous and endpoints become interoperable, a greater availability of mix-and-match options will lead to flexibility, with less dependency on specific products or brands. This allows for alternative options to be pursued when go-to products are unavailable or no longer satisfying needs, and provides the opportunity to try out new releases without having to overhaul an entire system. Although there are identifiable advantages to the consistency of a single-brand system, the inability to find substitute products when a particular SKU is unavailable can be highly problematic.

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A Global Issue

With the global economy in 2021 still being impacted by supply chain issues and computer chip shortages, the AV industry is not unique in having to cope with production delays, added costs, and the lasting challenges of product backorders. As the costs of hardware production and shipping add up, they ultimately translate into increased prices, greater costs of doing business, slimmer margins, or less affordable projects. Despite the notion that the backlog will ultimately be resolved and the pent-up demand will yield industry growth and prosperity, it is important to realize that unmet client needs are not sustainable. 

Given current product availability, as well as changing organizational needs that call for updated technology in support of flexible spaces and hybrid meetings, the door is open to explore new solutions and products that may be considered less popular or unconventional. This includes investigating more products that are interchangeable rather than brand-specific, more technologies that are standardized rather than proprietary, software-based alternatives to hardware products, and more systems that can be virtualized. 

The Cloud

While there has been hesitancy toward fully investing in cloud-based AV solutions, and nothing is immune from the impact of production delays, solutions that leverage the cloud seem like a viable alternative to hardware-dependent solutions that are being held up by product shortages. Aside from availability, applications that can run on servers and communicate over IT networks offer ease of scalability and management, as well as the potential of lower-cost alternatives to investing in dedicated hardware per AV space. Control system solutions, AV-over-IP signal switching, web conferencing, and audio processing are a few examples of virtualized solutions from AV manufacturers and software providers. While it doesn't eliminate the need for locally installed endpoints, the bulk of the specialized AV equipment can be replaced by a software solution.

As more AV manufacturers are turning to software that runs on servers, the cloud, or other readily available hardware like PCs, mobile devices, tablets, and touch-sensitive displays—the idea of developing solutions that are flexible and adaptable to various conditions or requirements, rather than being limited to proprietary hardware, have become top-of-mind. Technologies like HTML5 and modern programming languages like JavaScript, Swift, Python, and C# open the door to user interface design and functionality development that can run on most common computing devices. Software-based solutions that offer the ability to run on a larger variety of hardware not only present more options for use, but they also offer brand-agnostic solutions that are important when dealing with product shortages. Even for manufacturers, the idea of developing powerful software that can be leveraged on multiple platforms and on a variety of off-the-shelf products is an intriguing alternative to being restricted to a specific piece of hardware.

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Think Outside the Container

The AV industry must continue to find new ways to address requirements and provide solutions that support clients' needs to remain relevant. It is not feasible to think that clients will wait patiently without considering other options to hardware-dependent solutions. It is also shortsighted to think that no other options beyond default selections exist. If left without a clear path to a result, clients will ultimately find alternative means to address their needs by adapting their business workflow and pursuing novel solutions that are more readily available on their own. The result will likely be a reallocation of funds or a change in spending habits—with neither favoring AV professionals. The longer the demand for hardware remains unfulfilled, the more appealing creative, software-based solutions become for those who are ready think outside the box (literally and figuratively) and invest in forward-thinking solutions. Although nobody wishes for a supply chain issue and product shortage to disrupt an industry, perhaps the silver lining here is an opportunity to think differently, take risks, and pursue unique solutions that may not have been readily considered in the past.

Steve Greenblatt, CTS, is president and founder of Control Concepts, a provider of specialized software and services for the audiovisual industry.