An Announcement from QSC, the Death of Hardware and Where We Go Next

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I’ve been writing for some time about how the days for dedicated hardware in the commercial AV realm might be numbered. We will always, of course, need edge devices: loudspeakers and amplifiers, microphones and audio digitizers. Video encoders, video decoders. Displays. Between all of these devices, however, live the entire world of AV switching, control, audio processing, video processing. These are, at their heart, collections of algorithms and instructions, with little need for a dedicated box. Where will this take us? A not-unexpected announcement from our friends at QSC is a clear waypoint along one path.

What QSC Is Doing

The announcement is a simple one: QSC is putting their software in a standard Dell server — the same kind of server that would run pretty much any other enterprise software. If I understand this correctly, that means no big grey box with the words “QSC” stamped on it. What’s more is that the QSC platform can be used as a control platform as well as an audio-processing platform. Even assuming that video transport isn’t coming soon (and I have every reason to suspect that it is), there’s no reason the Q-SYS software cannot be used to send control strings to a series of network-based video encoders and decoders.

Meanwhile Utelogy has been making inroads with their own software-based platform. The two firms have taken very different direction: The Q-SYS platform is built on the type of audio-processing environment with which we’ve been familiar for over a decade now; it’s an active and sophisticated system involving specialized configuration skill set. The Utelogy platform is a bit simpler and more closely resembles a unified communications platform such as Cisco Call Manager than it does a traditional AV control system. Q-SYS is, at its heart, an audio processing platform with control processing and video transport (currently via QSC’s IP cameras only, but I expect to see more added to it). The Utelogy platform is an enterprise communications and ID management system with AV control overlaid. The latter is probably better for handling various user-IDs and permission levels, while the former better lends itself to the “work” of an AV system, including audio processing.

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As software grows, it will be interesting to see which approach gains the larger foothold.

What Does This Mean?

The superficial answer is that a specialized box will be replaced by a non-specialized box performing the same function. That is technically an answer, but a reductive and not terribly interesting one. A better question is that of what it means for our business and for how the AV integration world works. What IS an AV system? What does an AV professional actually do?

I wouldn’t be your pixel and ink-stained wretch if I didn’t answer in metaphor. For today’s metaphor, let’s look at IP telephony. While there are specialized firms to handle this kind of work, they do not design, build and configure an entire telephony system for a single space. What they create is an infrastructure on which a larger system or set of systems can be constructed. Can I see a future in which streamlined “conference room” modules in an instance of Q-SYS software could be implemented to add a huddle room with a USB microphone and IP camera to an existing configuration? I absolutely can. In such a world, a new room could be brought online in less than an hour and tear-down could be just as quick.

Where Does That Leave Us?

It leaves us with our core competencies — in understanding audio, in understanding sight-lines and in helping our clients build the infrastructure on which they can build. It’s understanding microphones and loudspeakers. It’s forging relationships, including on-going service and support contracts to keep the systems working and help add to them.

It’s leading the discussion on what is possible in an ever-changing and ever-evolving world.

If we insist that it’s our role to sell boxes, then the death of the box WILL be our death as well. If we remain smart and adaptable, we’ll find more chances to do what we do well and to fit into a whole new world.

Leonard Suskin

About Leonard Suskin

Leonard C Suskin, the pixel-and-inkstained wretch, lives in the suburbs of the greatest city in the world with his wife, two children, and cat. A veteran of the AV industry, he designs AV systems for Whitlock and continues to pen fiction and poetry in his spare time. Opinions are his own, not reflecting his employer, colleagues, rAVe staff, or the cat - though she'd likely agree. You can find him on Twitter @Czhorat.

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  • Frederick Ampel

    Off we go into IT/IP running the show with AV on board- a logical step technically but………………. do we want to be part of the network or part of the process- that seems to be the real question

    • TJ Adams

      It is my genuine belief based on the evidence we already see today, that this question is already answered for us. We have to be part of both the process and the network because they are inextricably linked. If we think we have an “opt-out” here then I think we are dead because we already see those that are becoming successful embracing this change in our industry and there will be more… the ship is sailed!

  • Costa Lakoumentas

    Native vs. Embedded? A question that was answered in Recording, Broadcast and Production years ago, is finally being addressed in AV. Manufacturers need to ask themselves if they truly add value by packing DSP, FPGAs, network interfaces and power supplies in a metal box when that processing could easily be offloaded to a networked computer. There’s still room for differentiation in processing, routing, signal and control management but the hardware literally adds nothing to the value proposition.

    As you aptly point out Leonard, there’s still plenty of life left in the end-point business for manufacturers; and design, configuration, installation and commissioning for integrators. Many of us have been looking forward to the era of distributed I/O, where you literally buy only what you need in the way of inputs and outputs, without the inefficiency of dedicated DSP. Now that time-sensitive networking has staked its place in the public domain, the last remaining obstacle has been removed. Great move by a company that has consistently set the pace for transformation in the AV industry.

    • TJ Adams

      This is exactly our conclusion… great summary of where we are headed. QSC is not saying we are out of the hardware business. As several posts have already indicated; hardware is not truly dead (although a polarizing headline is always an eye grabber). Its just what hardware do AV manufacturers continue to make to add value? Is it in head-end tech like Servers? or End Points? We think the later, and we have good evidence from the IT industry itself where platforms of the past such as PBX telephony systems used to be all proprietary hardware (and for good reason because of the lack of capable mainstream off-the-shelf technology). This has already happened! Look at Cisco for example. They continue to make telephone end points and add lots of value with hardware, but it’s ALSO the software. If this were a zero sum game, nothing would be changing in that industry or ours. But its not a zero sum game! Its a bigger opportunity to allow our new customer type to deploy, manage and pay for systems in the way they are most familiar. This is a value that is worth something in and of itself.

  • Very well written article Leonhard!
    One of the major headaches is, that our industry’s sales channel (and that includes the end users mind!) still factor in, that the margin made on hardware pays for the majority of brainware involved. Be it system design, be it commissioning, etc.
    So as soon as you take the hardware away by “allowing” it to be delivered by others, the whole current sales model falls apart. We can see this perfectly in the resi world where custom integrators dont make any margin on ipads, sonos boxes and amazon echos, But still should take care of everything. Not too many can still earn decent money with services alone. Quite a few do rely on other hardware with insane margins to compensate this loss. Did I say cables? 😉

    • Leonard Suskin

      Service will need to be a key part of what we do as we move forward. This is probably another post, but one of the questions I asked when looking for a new opportunity is how a given firm planned on dealing with the rising threat of commoditization. It’s not an easy question, and one to which I I saw quite a few different answers, from “we focus on specialty spaces” to “we have a service model/long term relationships/VNOC which adds value over time” to “huh? What are you talking about?”

      Those who gave the latter type of response are not firms who I foresee doing terribly well over the long term. I will say that commercial is not residential and that with large, enterprise clients there is more of a space for relationships and service contracts to fill the void left by declining equipment margins. This is still the most important thing about which we should all be thinking.

    • TJ Adams

      Hi Harald – I mostly agree with your statements here, but I would like to suggest that the future is more complex than this and cannot be compared to the resi market. We are headed for a world where there is more value in software and less in hardware, but there is even more margin in software than hardware; this is key. For example, IT does not “give away” software like we have traditionally done in AV. Let me just say that there is far more flexibility and ways to both make more $ and capture previously unavailable customers. Some of this has to do with being able to bring key functionality downmarket to capture more customers and reoccurring revenue vs. fixed. Tuning this equation of more customers + hardware margin (although less) + services + software licensing = More $ and better $

      • TJ, I totally get your point and I also agree with it BUT there is one undeniable fact:
        Currently the whole AV world does give away way too much pre-sales consulting and system design for free of for a symbolic amount, which does not cover the costs. It took IT many years to get where they are now and so will it take years for the AV channel to reach a comparable state. However I am not too sure the AV channel really knows, that its not a bed of roses over there at all!
        Being an AV & IT consultant these days right on the overlap between the two sectors (collaboration, video conf and such) I do know first hand.You are totally right: We are HEADED for a world of value in software/skills bit it will be rough ride, trust me on this. Not because I am such a smart guy, but just we old farts witnessed how tough the transformation was for the IT channel back then. It turned the IT industry totally upside down, so we kind of must expect something similar for the AV channel.

        BUT there is ONE huge twist: The often referenced IT channel and its service model is for the most part already a thing of the past! Gone are the days of huge IT service fees and such.Go ask the average CIO just one simple question: Did your budget for service fees increase of decrease within the last two budgets? Most likely you will see a decrease in absolute numbers.
        Currently its a cut throat business and “a little bit more for a alittle less” is the name of the game.
        Anyhow, our businesses will change and the players will have to adept to stay afloat. Nothing new on a broader scope of things…

        • TJ Adams

          Hi Harald… thanks for sharing your insights. I find them quite on point and think your assessments need to be considered for sure. Hope to see you at the show!

  • Joey D’Angelo

    OK, Leonard, great article! This one resonates with me as you can imagine. Once you can buy any off-the-shelf server not directly from an actual AV company, and run all of your “collections of algorithms and instructions” on it….then…only finally the AV industry will have tossed the traditional channel and moved more towards the way the IT industry works…I suspect mostly with value added re-sellers. Service and support will reign supreme. Guzintas, guzowtas, displays, speakers, and mics will have been “commoditized.” I run into people who cling onto the “must sell as many boxes as possible” mantra almost daily. QSC is making moves this way with their Dell-based Q-Sys and Utelogy has started out all the way at the other end of the spectrum. It will be an interesting next 5 years so we what comes of it all but I’m gunna be out there designing systems that use those almost commoditized guzintas and guzowtas, and rely on those collections of “algorithums and instructions” for the in between stuff. An ideal situation is, ironically, an SVSi-based system, AES67 mics, a Q-Sys Core, and Utelogy. Not a single audio or video wire is needed and you’re looking at a network switch, a core, and a tablet or PC running utelogy for an almost unlimited number of guzintas and guzowtas in 3-4 rack units! Wow.

    • Joey D’Angelo

      *ideal for most of my projects, I should say! 🙂

    • TJ Adams

      Hi Joey – As you know from working here at QSC, we are very dedicated to our AV Channel partners. I see an inference in your statements above that we would not agree is the path forward for us at QSC or our industry. Cited: “finally the AV industry will have tossed the traditional channel and moved more towards the way the IT industry works…I suspect mostly with value added re-sellers”. We believe instead of attempting to make traditional IT VARS learn AV, as your statement would seem to lead to (although I admit that I am not certain is what you meant), that there is an even greater opportunity for the existing AV Channel partners to reinvent themselves and embrace IT skillsets especially as they apply to the technologies and AV skills that cannot be made a commodity. So, in summary, I think that this speculation is too harsh and binary (if it is in fact, what you meant). I think reality will probably take on both aspects where AV integrators will move towards becoming IT/AV VARs in function (this is already starting to happen) and traditional IT VARs moving towards AV. As this evolution continues, these entities will end up looking very close to each other in practice. It’s just which place they are starting from. I hope we can all agree that the landscape will change but that there is opportunity for those that want to adapt which is a key tenant of any successful long-term venture or business.

  • Rich Zwiebel

    Hello Leonard, I have not followed your posts before but heard about this one today. I think it is well written and gets to the point that I am often making people and have been making for decades now, just for different reasons. Technology changes and if you want to be successful you need to as well. Back in 1994 when my company (Peak Audio) came up with the first configurable DSP (Mediamatrix) so many people told me this would put them out of business because they knew how to wire individual boxes and set them up. Or they knew how to repair them. I explained that those who learn how to design and setup a system using software have a great opportunity as that is where the world will be going and they are at the forefront of that.

    Then a few years later when we introduced CobraNet I heard all the same type of nay-sayers who said that it was a terrible idea. Why on earth would you ever want to put audio onto a network? That could never be reliable? But the future-thinking people got it and latched onto the future. And they are who are succeeding today.

    Now as signal processing of many types moves to not needing dedicated hardware, there will be those same people who say that that is what they sell and that this is going to ruin their business. As you so correctly pointed out, all of the edge devices will always be needed. You cannot skip the microphone, loudspeaker, camera or display. Perhaps someday we will have telepathic communication but I would not worry about that just yet.

    You made the same point I always make to these people. You still have all the needed skills that come with being an AV professional. And the need for those will not go away. Somebody has to design it, make it sound good, and make it look good. This is a time of great opportunity and this is just the next logical step in the progression of technology. I love being part of it! By the way, I am giving a presentation on this topic at ISE in a couple of weeks as well as at Infocomm in June and Infocomm China in April. Come on by and introduce yourself!

  • Frank Pellkofer

    Thanks Leonard. Great article. We at Utelogy love QSC and applaud the giant step forward. We specify a lot of QSYS to our customers looking for a next gen solution. And with our 2.0 release our control side is spectacular and can do anything the “other guys” can do – but easier as you noted. And as you know, our management platform U-Manage is super powerful. You are correct when you indicate the Utelogy platform is simpler, closely resembling a call manager. That was our intention from the beginning – to deliver an AV management platform that looked and acted like most IT platforms: VoIP, email, Virtual Desktops, Enterprise applications, etc. It is totally non-proprietary and open. We approached AV from the platform > room rather than the room > out to the platform. Good times ahead for QSC and Utelogy and any AV/IT manufacturers and VARs that embrace the new paradigm. Thanks again for the kind words. Cheers! -Frank Pellkofer, Utelogy Corporation

  • Frederick Ampel

    While I do not disagree with Mr. Adams that the ship has left the dock on this issue, it’s not yet out to sea. There is still time for us to become part of the crew and maintain our needs and functionality within the larger ecosphere- the problem arises if we don’t do that and RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!