Hardware is Dead! Long Live Hardware! In Defense of the Appliance, and a Look Ahead at Software Solutions

Last week Ryan Pinke joined a new tradition in proclaiming the video conference Codec dead. In my own look ahead I posited a potential future free of boxes, in which software solutions largely replace dedicated appliances. Is Pinke right on this one? Have we reached, or are we nearing the end of hardware? I don’t think that we are, and still predict a variety of appliances having use in the foreseeable future.

What do you mean “Appliance?”

appliance-0114A quick word for those not up on the lingo — an “appliance” is a device dedicated to a single task. An AV control processor is an appliance. A VTC codec is an appliance. A DSP (Digital Signal Processor for audio mixing and processing) is an appliance, etc.

The alternative to an appliance is a general-use computer utilizing software for varying tasks. Instead of a dedicated VTC codec from Cisco or Polycom, for example, one can run a desktop conferencing program. A computer is more functional, multi-use, and can be easily upgraded and reconfigured as required tasks and available software standards change. A computer as opposed to an appliance seems like a very appealing choice.

So Why Is Hardware Still Alive?

I was pondering this question while running errands. If a general-use PC gives you flexibility and lower cost, what does the appliance give you?  For one obvious answer, see this photo I snapped  as I passed the Cartier store on Fifth Avenue, here in New York.

dialogbox-0114See that lovely video wall with the loop of their running jaguar logo? Do you see what’s in the upper-left corner of the image? That’s right, it’s an ugly, utilitarian “Back Up Your Data” dialog which those running the thing probably don’t even know about. That’s part of the challenge in using PCs; they require attention and maintenance. They want to run virus scans. OS updates. Data backups. PCs don’t do these things constantly, but often enough that the threat of an interruption or reboot or dialog pop-up is worth considering for uses which are sensitive, mission-critical, or just embarrassing.

The second issue is control. It’s easy to control an appliance through a third-party control system creating, in the best scenarios, a  seamless interface for an entire AV system. One can even create a single “speed-dial” button to switch inputs to the videoconferencing codec, adjust the camera to its proper preset, and initiate a call to a specific endpoint. With a PC-based system, this is a more challenging proposition. Depending on the specifics of the control system and PC set up it might not even be possible.

What can we do with PCs?

The flip side of all of this is that, in many ways, the lower-cost lower-capability hardware options  are less appealing and may end up being the real users. For mission-critical or very high-profile spaces, a high-end hardware appliance is quite appropriate. For the smaller space in which you don’t need the capability and reliability you’d possibly be as well off with a PC-based system as with a lower-end codec. In my look ahead, one thing I posited was the possibility of going the other way: not worrying about integrating a PC with a larger system, but creating a PC-based room with no appliances. Is this possible today? Quite likely. (Please note that usual disclaimers apply: None of the below is an endorsement of any specific products; products are mentioned as examples only. In other words, don’t use these just because I mention them.) That said, consider:

Content Sharing: Mersive Solstice, software-based video sharing. Run it on the PC or server and use Wi-Fi to share content.

Video Conferencing: Lync, Jabber, Skype, or your favorite software Codec.

Video Conference Camera: Any webcamera would suffice, but if we’re looking at high-end conferencing one of Vaddio’s USB cameras (either PTZ or fixed) should give a nice image.

Video Conference Audio: If we want wireless mics, we will need one box as a receiver. The Shure ULX-D has native Dante connectivity, which will come in handy. Alternatively, we could put hardwired mics at a table. Then use a Dante break-in box. Then use Dante virtual soundcard software to bring the audio into the Codec.

Interconnectivity with other spaces: H.264 streaming.

Device Control: IF we want to stick with no boxes, then HRS Control’s UDC software, running either on the local PC or a centrally located server. An iOS, Android, or Windows device can then be used as a control interface.

Audio Output: You’ll still need an amplifier. If it network-enabled the aforementioned Dante can be used for audio transport, freeing one of the need to colocate amplifier and PC.

Is this a solution I’d use today? Some of it might be. What makes it important – and what makes it interesting – is that it is shows how far we can break from traditional design in which everything is a box.

My final thought? The appliance isn’t dead or even, perhaps dying. It IS losing its place of dominance in the market as other options become available. Will hardware ever truly die? That I doubt. What I do agree with is that it’s no longer the only choice.