AVPhenom’s Inbox: Is AV Really a Subset of the IT Industry?

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As often happens, I have found myself in the middle of a small debate on AV and IT.  This one happens to deal with whether or not AV has become a subset of the IT industry.  I wrote a blog on HDBaseT last week that referenced a quote by Dave Labuskes of Infocomm.

Many times people will leave an opinion in the comments section of my blogs to either agree or disagree with the its premise.  Other times, and just as often, I will get private email from readers furthering the discussion.  This blog was one which generated one of those emails.  That email was entitled “Not that I disagree with ALL of your HDbaseT article” and wasn’t from just anyone, but from a long time AV industry veteran.  He and I correspond a few times a year, and even though we have never met in person, I have started to see him as a friend and ally.

In this case, he disagreed with my premise that AV is a subset of IT.  His response was quite detailed and intelligent, so I thought I’d share it here.  I represent it as it was typed to me, along with my response, and his follow up comments.  I have respected his anonymity, as he has no desire to be a public figure in this debate, but I feel that his value as a historian of our industry speaks for itself.  I have included his comments below as “IV” for Industry Veteran, and mine as my initials, “MC”.

IV:  Wow. Your latest rAVe article says:

We are now a subset of the IT industry.

“Says who?”, you ask?  Why none other than InfoComm CEO David Labuskes.

“We need to acknowledge the fact that AV is a specialty that lives within the Information Technology Communications community.  The way I talk about this at this point is in the medical industry we have cardiologists and podiatrists and dermatologists and neurosurgeons.  The fact is that they all have an MD but they all have various specialties and we as a society recognize and understand the need for those specializations…The fact is that AV is a specialty that focuses on people and the experience.”

I couldn’t disagree more, unless you’re either (1) missing Labuskes’ context, or (2) misunderstanding him.

I don’t disagree that there’s a specialty within IT called “AV” – but it’s a door, an interface, between one wholly separate and independent industry and another. Rather than comparing AV to the “medical industry”, where “cardiologist” is a specialty within that industry and similarly “AV” is a specialty wholly contained within IT, think of it more like an industry called “Wheels”, where “automotive” is a door to the wheels component of the transportation industry. “Wheels” has many more facets in its own right – industrial, consumer, etc.

But to argue that “AV” is a wholly-owned subsidiary of IT is to ignore ‘way too many parts of AV that have nothing to do with IT. IT is a technology that has some – you might even say significant – usefulness within AV, but it ain’t the whole pie, not by a long shot.

The thing is this: AV is about organizational media; if the big medium tomorrow within organizations drops all connection with electronics and instead begins using flying squirrels, AV will still exist – but perhaps IT will desperately, and quickly, add a new interface called “aeromammals”.

This is not the first time a technology has tried to lay claim to AV and it likely won’t be the last.

In the late 1940s, the National Audio-Visual Association (InfoComm’s direct predecessor) was formed by the merging together of the National Association of Visual Education Dealers (the AV dealer community) and the Allied Non-Theatrical film Association (the big guns – at the time, films for education were big business with films costing a thousand dollars a minute, minimum ten minutes). Following World War II, the National Film Council (the biggest gun of them all in that era) tried to bring NAVA under its umbrella; NAVA wisely said no and pursued its own course.

Here’s another one: With the advent of helical scan video recording, the Umatic, incredibly cheap VHS players, and lightweight portable video equipment, video quickly became the hot new medium in education in the late 1970s. At the same time, the single lens reflex camera, ultra-fast processing chemistries, and the development of multi-image and the Carousel slide projector built an entirely new photo industry. By 1979, the Industrial Television Association (ITVA) was the big new dog in town and throwing its weight around, looking like a serious contender to make AV its junior pet.

It didn’t happen: the recession of 1990-91 cost George Bush I his job in the 1992 presidential election, and thousands of ITVA members their jobs as in-house industrial video producers as corporations shed their video production departments in favor of independents. ITVA sank into a malaise they’ve never recovered from.

As I said, this is not the first time a technology has tried to lay claim to AV. It’s not the first time AV has tried to give itself away for no good reason, either:

There is significant danger in making an assertion like “AV is a subset of IT” and actually believing it. In the early 1990s, the big thing in business was roll-ups, where a larger firm bought up lots of smaller local firms across a wide geographic area and used the economies of scale provided by making one administrative organization serve a much larger group of smaller specialties, eliminating duplication and realizing the savings to be gained by doing so.

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One major AV dealer began to believe such a thing would/could happen in AV and he traveled around preaching his new found faith in the big roll-up that would undoubtedly soon be coming to AV. Finally, a roll-up of office supplies vendors took place, and when they ran out of office suppliers to acquire, they looked at AV firms. Being a true believer, the dealer was all too ready to sell and quickly reached agreement with them. Of course, they (and he) were the only people on the planet who believed in the business model of AV as office supplies, but in 1999 he put his entire family business and all his employees into their hands.

In 2003 the whole thing collapsed, taking 12 major AV firms (including those of four InfoComm presidents) down with it. If that first dealer hadn’t been such a true believer, if he hadn’t seen it as his mission to spread the gospel, if, if, if . . . a crowd of people who are normally flinty-eyed show-me types might not have been led so easily to the slaughter. I’m sure there were other factors as well, but they were SO ready for it. 

 

MC:  I love your argument here, especially the aeromammals quip, being a former zoology guy:). All good points.  

Do you think that this time the situation may be different as we are no longer a separate analog set of gear, but starting to become an industry dependent on AV appliances that live on the network?  With all video becoming digital, with HDMI and DVI being IT guys solutions to video problems but openly adopted by us despite their problems, with the emergence of consumer-centric control devices, and of course the soft codec, isn’t the argument stronger this time?

I think we started down this path with HDMI and Cat5 extension and now we’re stuck.  HD-SDI is a better video solution, and would have kept us on coaxial, removing some pressure to move all video through the Ethernet switch.  HDCP could have been implemented without HDMI as it is in commercial theaters.  We got pushed by a political HDMI decision down a path that really may hurt us in the end.

 

IV:  I think the way I’d put it is this: the situation MAY be different this time because solutions based on IT technology have proved to be so useful and have been made so easy to adopt that a HUGE chunk of the AV universe is now powered by IT. I’d even be willing to estimate that upwards of 90% of AV now runs on an IT backbone. 

 The corollary is that for many people, if an easy-to-use IT solution isn’t available, they won’t do whatever they might do otherwise, so that portion of AV just disappears from the A-V spectrum. I’m thinking there of the wholesale blood, sweat and tears that used to go into producing overhead slides with cardboard frames. I’d bet there isn’t anyone out there today who would create more than three of those things the old hard way. Admittedly I can’t imagine why anyone would want to do it that way.

However, there remain some very old AV technologies that are very much in use in the modern day. Despite every meeting room here having a smart board, the item usually used when groups meet is the old-fashioned easel pad, and it’s normal to walk past a meeting and see 15 or so sheets taped or push-pinned to the walls.

True whiteboards as used here are immense things, usually six feet by six feet or so, but each office has one and the occupant of that office uses it for solo brainstorming. I have a smaller one on my desk and I’m the only person who uses it.

So, while we should appreciate the gigantic role that IT is playing in the AV world today, I think we should be careful, kinda like we didn’t with the housing bubble or some of the incidents I was pointing out that have happened within the industry itself. Ya know, we’re one solar burp from having an EMP that would knock 90% of AV out of action for a significant period of time – and right when our organizations would most need to communicate within themselves.

 

So what do you think?  Does the industry veteran make a solid case for not prematurely conceding AV to the IT industry?   Or do you think that Mr. Labuskes is right and we need to acknowledge our role as AV specialists in an IT world?  Obviously I lean toward the latter, but I can’t say I wasn’t swayed somewhat by the historical examples above.

I’d love to know your take! Join the conversation in the comments below!