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AV/IT: A done deal, or a work in progress?

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There is a saying that, if something is inevitable, it’s usually better not just to accept it, but to embrace it. Ian McMurray looks at the apparent inevitability of convergence between AV and IT.

DEC. ICL. Wang. Compaq. Data General. Burroughs. Sperry Univac. Those names may not be familiar to you – but, once upon a time, those were household name (well, if anyone in the house was in the computing industry, they were) companies. What they have in common today is that they no longer exist as they once did.

I was reminded of them at a session at ISE this year, which discussed the convergence between AV and IT, when the panel chairman, Volker Löwer of IFB Consulting, recalled the words of Jon Gage, the top technology guy at Sun Microsystems. (That’s another one to add to the list.)

It was Gage who was credited with coining the phrase “the network is the computer” in 1984 – a phrase which dominated Sun’s advertising in subsequent years. Löwer, in his opening remarks, claimed that, today, “the network is the media system”.

As I was listening to him, I got to thinking. Is AV/IT integration still an issue? With companies like Microsoft and Cisco now established as exhibitors at ISE, it’s hard to believe there’s still anything to discuss. But: the fact that ISE hosted a session on it told me that someone, somewhere, thought there was. On the other hand – there really weren’t that many people in the room.

Interesting ground

Which was a shame, as the session covered some interesting ground, touching on topics such as how latency is all-important in the AV world – but in the IT world, its importance is significantly surpassed by the need to conserve bandwidth.

Remarkably, it’s possible to trace the history of the convergence topic back to InfoComm 2001, which saw the first-ever AV/IT pavilion to highlight what InfoComm described as the new digital future of the industry. At the same show, Sony debuted a new projector with – wait for it – a network connection.

The key words there, of course, are ‘digital’ and ‘network’. The AV world was, of course, historically an analogue world – although that was never likely to last. Yes, it had always prided itself on its inherent connectivity – but as Löwer pointed out in his session: just because it looks like a network doesn’t mean it is a network. Today, ‘network’ is pretty much synonymous with ‘IP’, which is omnipresent – and when we talk about convergence, what we’re really talking about is how AV can co-exist with a technology that is at the heart of every business and organisation. And which falls within the domain of the IT organisation.

And that, really, is the issue. In the past, AV installations were often referred to as islands of technology. They were largely self-contained and found in boardrooms, classrooms, lecture theatres and so on. Not only that, but they were typically managed by AV professionals – people who understood what AV was all about, and had a free hand to do largely as they thought best. They were people that AV integrators felt comfortable talking to, in a language that both sides understood.

From discussions I’ve had with integrators, their concern isn’t about the technology – about whether digital is good or bad for AV, or whether AV should or shouldn’t be integrated within a network. There’s a pretty widespread belief that both are fundamentally good.

Their concern is about developing customer relationships with individuals whose language they don’t yet speak fluently, whose agendas they don’t fully understand and whose priorities don’t include whether the projector in the boardroom is bright enough.

Acutely aware

It’s not only AV integrators who are concerned, though. IT professionals I’ve spoken to look at the AV infrastructure they’ve been given to manage, and wonder how they can possibly prevent it swamping their precious bandwidth. Many are acutely aware that the AV world is a world they hardly understand. An overriding concern for many IT teams is security – and they look aghast at all these potentially insecure end points. They’re also looking at what can seem like the exponential growth in the number of users they’ll need to support.

There is an extent to which AV has become a victim – if that’s the right word – of its own success. The fact is that AV has moved – and I exaggerate for effect here – from being a way of making presentations prettier and audio clearer to a strategic (and even mission-critical) corporate asset. AV has always been fundamentally about communication – but communication has assumed dramatically increased significance in recent years as a key enabler for the way in which business operate, with a workforce that has become geographically fragmented and dispersed.

Not only that: AV has historically not only been about communication, but about media – images, video, sound. In an increasingly media-centric world, those images, videos and sounds have assumed an importance not much less than that attached to data.

Given that degree of strategic importance, it was inevitable (and hindsight is a very perfect science) that companies and organisations would look to create a single, coherent, centrally-managed resource. Even at the basic equipment level, many organisations now want to control their physical assets from one place.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still many environments – education and healthcare are two that come to mind – where there is often still some residual separation between AV and IT. Convergence is not yet universal.

From a technology point of view, however, convergence has pretty much happened. Yes, there are still pockets of resistance – or, rather, solutions that still work better the ‘old’ way and that have thus far proven intractable to an IP-based solution. Those new solutions will, I’m confident, be found. I’m reminded that the broadcast industry is being challenged in much the same way as the AV world by the transition to digital and IP. (Scant consolation, I know.) There, for example, there were many who believed that SDI – serial digital interface – could never be replaced for the local movement of high quality video. Now, SDIoIP is finding increasing favour.

New paradigm

Where convergence hasn’t quite yet happened is in the minds of integrators – although many have been quick to embrace the new paradigm. I was talking to a UK integrator the other day who has staffed a dedicated videoconferencing/unified communications team with people who are fully trained in, and experienced with, corporate networking infrastructures.

Others, though, are less certain. To me, what’s important to remember, in this context, is that AV doesn’t stand for audiovisual. It stands for added value. AV integrators have much to offer in the way of expertise and experience – but because they’re so familiar with what they know, they underestimate its value. That value is something that IT teams acknowledge that they desperately need. AV integrators will continue to be the only source of vital corporate functionalities – collaboration, control rooms, meeting facilities and even digital signage.

There is, of course, a quid pro quo. In his ISE presentation, Löwer was clear. It’s incumbent on the AV industry to develop an understanding of the IT world and learn what’s important – as well as its language. Only that way can the two teams engage in a full, frank exchange of views and requirements. We need to communicate – and move forward together.

Will we still be talking about AV/IT convergence at ISE 2018? I’d like to think not – but then, one of the joys of ISE is that it never fails to deliver surprises.

About Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray

Ian joined the tech industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest screen resolution – it was as much memory as a computer needed. In 1996, he was responsible for launching TI’s DLP technology into Europe, and has been closely involved in the AV industry ever since, becoming a freelance writer about it more than 10 years ago.

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