Crossing the digital divide

Call it convergence, that utopian dream of uniting all data and media traffic on a single network. Six or seven years ago, “convergence” was the catchphrase for all the promises of the digital revolution, but in a world of iPods, iPhones, YouTube and desktop video production, the term now seems just a little hackneyed.Maybe it’s time to give the word another look because it sums up one of the big trends in the enterprise computing market, as once-strictly-analog audio-visual technologies are going digital and A/V resellers – erstwhile strangers to the megabits and bytes business – are moving in on the turf of traditional computing and networking VARs.

“It’s not the word ‘convergence’ itself, that’s still around, so much as the idea that the AV and IT businesses are converging,” says Ron Gooch, president of Toronto-based First Vision Canada, one of the sounds-and-pictures resellers who’ve moved into the IT orbit. “When we do VoIP and videoconferencing, we inevitably get involved with IT.”

A big part of that, of course, is because the technological boundaries between what was once strictly networks and computers on one hand and cameras and analog video on the other has become completely and irrevocably blurred. This isn’t exactly a new thing; the writing was on the wall when the Mosaic Web browser started displaying JPEG photos right in the browser window a decade ago. Convergence was in the air then, but with the digitization of everything that moves, it was only a matter of time before the video business and the IP business became the same business.

“In the old days, when we talked about voice, video and data over the network, we meant network convergence,” says Info-Tech Research senior research analyst Mark Tauschek. “That’s what we’re seeing now, and the requirements of the network are different. The days of analog video over ISDN are over; it’s all digital now.”

This is one of those good news, bad news situations. The good news is that the market for A/V technologies is expanding as prices come down to levels where even the local five-and-dime can afford to videoconference. That means there are huge opportunities for IT VARs in the A/V business.

“What’s happening is the great leveling,” says Jim Estill, president of consumer and enterprise electronics distributor Synnex Canada. “It used to be that you needed $50,000 of equipment to do things like videoconferencing. Now, it’s pretty much something that a 15-year-old can buy with his allowance.”

It means that, while basic business requirements have not changed, the means of meeting them have changed – and have become a lot less expensive. “There has been no big change in the basic function of the boardroom, of course, but in terms of the technology available, everything has changed,” Gooch says. “Five or six years ago, a boardroom projector was the size of a suitcase and cost $10,000. Now, it’s the size of a notebook and costs $2500.”

And it’s not likely that the trend will stop any time soon. “The technology continues to advance on a daily basis,” says Derek Glen, a representative of M.E. Audio-Visual in Barrie, Ont. “The big thing we’re seeing from companies is a lot of interest in videoconferencing. After that, probably hearing-assist systems. There are so many possibilities now, and they really are within the reach of most decent-sized companies.”

There’s opportunity even in the mundane
Though there was something ineffably sexy about the idea of convergence back in the old days of 2001, the really hot products today are much more prosaic. Make no mistake, videoconferencing – at least when you think of the kind of transatlantic virtual board meeting hype of seven years ago – is pretty sexy. The funny thing is that the real needs of businesses tend to be much more mundane.“Video conferencing continues to grow, but the expectations that customers have for the technology hasn’t changed so much,” Gooch says. “The companies that use it the most use it mostly internally. We see that in the banks and large law firms, where person-to-person contact is so important.”

Nevertheless, even mundane technologies that you’re likely to see at the corner store represent real reseller and integrator potential. After all, there’s not only the converged A/V technology to consider, but the infrastructure and corollary technologies needed to make it work. “The most obvious place to start is with surveillance cameras,” Estill says. “The smallest variety store has a surveillance system. But storage is already becoming an issue.”

Indeed, with big IT vendors like Cisco and Avaya rolling out Wi-Fi digital surveillance systems, there’s a big pitch to be made for secure wireless access points and routers, as well as the networked storage companies will need to archive their security footage. Part of the attraction of digital A/V technologies for Canadian businesses, says Tauschek, is the ability to set up systems that don’t require wiring for coaxial cable and setting aside a warehouse for old ¾-inch tapes.

Glen notes, in fact, that the A/V business has had to rethink the way in which media technologies fit into company plans and strategies. For traditional A/V resellers, this has meant expanding their knowledge base and their point of contact within the enterprise to include IT.

“Rather than dealing only with the facility manager, we’re more and more often dealing with IT managers,” Gooch says. “They want to know what we’re doing to their network. Typically we’re not really doing anything though, except when we’re doing a conferencing installation.”

It’s not an impossible stretch, of course. Gooch notes that the revolution in digital A/V has paralleled, rather than lagged behind, similar revolutions in business data that have seen companies move from dumb terminals and stand-alone PCs to enterprise applications and networked storage. On the other hand, it has been a revolution of integration, and that means constant vigilance to stay current with the latest technologies in both A/V and IT.

“We’re training our guys all the time,” Gooch says. “I still marvel at it. In our business, it’s not just learning our own technologies. We need a whole spectrum of knowledge from construction, to networking, to specialized things like lighting.”

In some ways, the traditional A/V resellers’ specialized knowledge and point of contact through facilities management is their greatest advantage when it comes to grabbing marketshare. Their toe-hold is in the physical environment of the office rather than in abstractions like business processes, and that point of entry can be highly beneficial.

“Referrals account for about 60 per cent of our business,” Gooch says. “We deal with a lot of interior designers, architects and project managers. Most of it is design-build; we don’t really compete for tenders, though I do have two sales people.”

Traditional IT resellers have their own advantages
IT resellers cede that market at their own peril, however. Tauschek is quick to point out that technological and business convergence means that the same sale can be made from either side of the technological junction. “VARs on the network side can’t ignore A/V,” Tauschek says. “They have to understand it because all the A/V traffic is going over the IP network and customers need ways to prioritize it.”The problem is that, like A/V resellers who have had to learn how to network, IT VARs are increasingly wading into the unfamiliar waters of video and sound and their vendors expand their offerings. “Look at Cisco,” Tauschek says. “That’s a good example of a company that’s gotten into traditional AV areas like security cameras. Their VARs have an advantage on the data side, but they don’t really know AV. So there’s a learning curve on both sides of the equation.”

The advantage for IT resellers is that, despite falling prices and more end-user friendly products, setting up networks and associated hardware is still a complex business. And with the increasing demands of A/V, it seems likely to become even more so. “It just makes sense for computer resellers to get into this market,” Estill says. “The complexity of digital media technologies is increasing at the same time that computing power increases There’s definitely room for resellers who know the digital side of digital A/V.”

That can be a big advantage. “A/V channel partners from the old school, who know how to set up an ISDN router and analog video, face a steep learning curve,” Tauschek says. “The equipment looks similar and it does a lot of the same things, but the network is so different.”

With analog A/V systems, like TDM PBXes, reaching the end of their life cycles the traditional A/V resellers’ inexperience with IP networking could become a major hurdle despite their eagerness to cross the digital divide. And, as with the convergence of telecom with IP, the opportunities are definitely there for enterprising VARs, Tauschek says. The key, however, will be to learn the A/V trade from the other side.

“If you’re just a box pusher, then it doesn’t matter,” Tauschek says. “But that’s not most VARs these days. Most VARs still need more intelligence and skill on the A/V product side. And if you don’t have that knowledge, you can’t partner with the Avayas and the Ciscos that are making a big move here.”

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