Every year, the faithful make their journey to InfoComm, hoping to find insights and innovations that will allow them to leap ahead of their competition and profitably grow their business. This year’s InfoComm in Las Vegas certainly delivered the biggest show we have ever seen, and great education as always…but I am not sure I left there with any life-changing tools. Don’t get me wrong, there were many new models of the various technologies, but I did not find the Holy Grail that was going to separate me from others. I did, however, leave the show with confirmation that the world of the AV integrator has forever changed.
What Were The Changes?
We no longer can claim that we are the only ones who can really do AV integration to a professional level.
It was evident on the floor of the show and in the classes throughout the week of InfoComm that other professional integrator disciplines are now fully engaged and may represent a larger provider to the end user.
Speaking from the perspective of a 26-year veteran of this AV industry, the reality is that the IT and security integration companies have done a much better job of integrating the AV industry into their business than we have their disciplines into ours. We can no longer consider our competition to be just the other AV companies or the end users themselves who integrate internally. We must recognize and learn to compete with the other integration professionals that often hear of AV opportunities before we do. We must learn the concept of value engineering to win opportunities and teaming.
The role of the distributor.
Ten years ago, distributors certainly existed, but most of the larger manufacturers had their own direct representation in numbers large enough to touch every AV integrator, or had professional AV representative companies calling on every AV integrator. Today, the number of manufacturers with any sizable sales force to call on the AV integrator has greatly diminished and the ones that exist have such large geographic territory that they can only call on the larger accounts.
The world of professional AV rep companies has definitely changed, as well. Most of the rep companies have downsized or merged to survive. So what does that leave? It leaves a world of massive distributors that literally have access to just about any product you can think of. Many of the distributors integrated the world of AV, IT and security many years ago. Today, distributors play a very strategic role in delivery of AV to the end user through all of the integration companies and sometimes directly to the end user.
Today’s distributor is tasked with selling, and many times providing, basic sales support for AV, IT and security. Many of these distributors have invested hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to become an expert on all things to all integrators. Although these distributors are doing a great job of stocking and logistically delivering these products and sometimes even services to integrators, I believe it is an overwhelming task to be an expert at everything.
The end user is now the integrator.
In years past, one could find people and departments inside organizations that held a title with AV in the name. Today, we are hard-pressed to find that department or individual. Today, the task of AV integration has been integrated into the world of IT. With that integration, the way AV projects are looked at today by the IT professional is as a group of boxes that have to be attached to their network. Many times, that brings great displeasure to the IT professional because it is just one more appliance or application that they have to facilitate and support. As an instructor at the InfoComm show these days, I am teaching more IT professionals AV skills than any other group of attendees.
Consolidation and mergers.
This year, as over the past few years and, I am sure, our immediate future, has brought frequent announcements of mergers, consolidations and acquisitions within the AV integrator world. Today, it is difficult for the smaller players to compete on level ground with the larger AV integration companies. Yesterday’s margins of 25% to 35% on hardware are no longer a reality, and profitability is most often secured through professional services.
Many of the smaller companies simply cannot garner the financial resources to have highly trained and certified staff, and they simply don’t have the cash flow to compete on the larger projects, with such slim margins. Now, more than ever, there is value and strength found in the buying groups, such as USAV and PSNI.
What Is An Integrator To Do?
So what is an AV integrator to do? Our reality going forward involves several strategic changes.
- We must open our eyes and see the world for what it is and understand that, to only embrace the practices of the last 20 years, will most certainly bring our extinction. Another way of saying this: AV/IT convergence has already taken place and if we are still looking for this transition, we are living in the past.
- We must understand that our opportunities and survival depend on our ability to deliver professional services in a competitive environment, where we are being compared to IT and security integration companies. So, do we lower our professional rates to compete with their traditionally lower hourly installation rates, or do we find ways to differentiate our professional services? Or, do we form teaming relationships with some of the IT and security companies and recognize that it is better to have some of the pie than no pie at all? I suggest to you that the answer is YES on all counts. It will require some or all of these going forward.
- We will have to learn from our competing integrators and expand our offerings to include IT- and security-based services. We must learn their language as they have learned ours, and we must be asking for that business as they ask for the AV business.
- We must seek out ways to compete cost effectively. I would suggest that most AV integrators have some experience with the world of subcontracting installation labor, but I would suggest, going forward, for the successful and profitable company, that this will become essential to its growth and profitability. We must find ways to lower our professional service rates on elements of our projects that do not support a level 3 trained and certified installation tech or programmer.
So what did we as integrators see at InfoComm16? I will do my best to provide highlights of the different products and services that were presented to the InfoComm world. I present this overview with acknowledgment to my fellow team members at Unified AV. Nearly 30 of our team taught or attended classes, and walked the vast floor of the trade exhibit, and here are some of our takeaways. They are not listed in order of importance.
The day has finally come when we can offer solutions that do not require filter changes and healthy investments in bulbs that last 2000 to 3000 hours. With many companies offering their version of bulb-less solutions, we have a wide variety to choose from. Laser- and LED-based light engines provide ultra-long life to the light source compared to traditional bulb technology, and bring new opportunities to the projection world, including digital signage, previously excluded because of the relatively short bulb life.
Brightness is no longer a struggle, but are we back to the world of marketing lumens? If you visited the many manufacturers selling these great new solutions, you often found mini shootouts. This was much like the old days at InfoComm shows, where you would journey into a world of side-by-side projector comparisons with the same lumen ratings, and see great diversity in the output.
Regretfully, it seems that, with the advent of these new light engines, our measurement tools have once again been ignored or set aside. But, lest I stray into the dark tunnel of marketing lumens, I reflect that the world of projection is alive and well, with many great solutions, cost-effectively priced.
However, the world of projection advancements only starts there. Almost every major manufacturer offered 2D and 3D mapping solutions and edge-blending solutions that defy the imagination and description, opening new avenues to sell these solutions to museums, digital signage and high-tech research organizations. I certainly don’t want to forget the variety of short-throw solutions that make it possible to produce very large screens from very-short-throw distances. The new norm for brightness seems to be 5k lumens and above, and all the major manufacturers had their offerings in the flamethrower category (10k to 20k lumens). Resolution bears mention as well. As flatpanels are touting 4K and 8K, there are many solutions that are available in the projector world that support amazing 4K presentation.
Interactivity options represent my last comments about projectors. Today’s world screams for interactivity, and today’s projector manufacturers offer a variety of interactive solutions that bring the classroom, boardroom and digital signage application to life.
Yes, our good friends in the screen manufacturing world had their best on display. As has always been true, the screen can make or break the quality and feasibility of a project.
InfoComm16 exhibited many innovations not only to the screen itself, but to the mounting options, bringing screens to a new level of flexibility for almost every environment, from the church to the classroom. Screen manufacturers also brought flexibility and interactivity to a new level.
As integrators, we must engage in a new level of pursuit to the recommendation of a screen. We must consider all the enhancements to screen technology that have made real advancement, especially in ambient light rejection and view angles.
The BYOD Environment
BYOD (Bring Your Own Device): Expectations are high today for huddle rooms, meeting rooms, classrooms and boardrooms. A meeting or class participant expects to integrate any of his or her devices in the room. It has never been better for the world of BYOD, and has never been as difficult to define the best solution for the environment.
There are probably more than 100 solutions to support the BYOD environment, with some clear frontrunners in the collection. It is not my job here to make recommendations, but to provide insight into what is available and how to differentiate. Let’s start out with commonality: All of these BYOD devices project some path of connectivity between the room presentation surfaces and their appliance or computer. So, the first point of difference is, how do these appliances enable connectivity? They create their own WiFi hotspot that WiFi-enabled devices connect to, empowering the existing WiFi within the building to connect to the room and local resources through physical connectivity via a puck, dongle, disc or USB device (you pick the name, but they all have similar capabilities; you plug them into the device that will accept a USB connection and almost instantly you are connected).
BYODs differ in their footprint to the source appliance. Some work by downloading an app or program to your PC or appliance, and some leave no footprint at all on your local device when the USB connectivity is removed.
Security is of great concern to all, and these BYOD devices almost all have ways of protecting those working in the room from others that would like to steal contents from that room. Most use a separate code that is generated for each session or meeting, and then require passwords to distribute, save or retrieve meeting notes.
Some of these BYOD devices can provide multi-image processing, allowing four to six images, generated by four to six unique connections, to all be displayed on the room’s presentation surfaces at once. Most of the companies that provide these solutions have several models that vary in capability and physical connectivity.
Note: Although quality has gotten much better with animations and movies, one still has to test the type of video content that will be used to see if the appliance or network connectivity can support the bandwidth required by the ever-increasing quality of video commonly available.