Technical Merit Vs. Practical Application

Swiss ArmyAs is often times the case, I saw some social media and blogging that inspired me to chime in with this post.  I saw a video where a fellow AVTweep stood up and made the statement that “We are custom AV integrators, and we’re proud of what our systems are able to do for our clients’ business processes’.”  He made that statement in reaction to listening to some consultants talk about the future of AV with a trend towards simplification.  He had a different take in that he saw this as an attempt to “lower the ability to communicate or present or collaborate to the lowest common denominator so it’s fast and easy and cheap to install right out of the box.”

I later interfaced with him briefly on Twitter, where he summed up his impressions of this philosophy as the “Moronification of AV”.  Anyone who knows me knows that I found that obviously very humorous and in some cases very correct.  I have seen many systems where features that were needed were compromised in the name of “easy” and ultimately neither the client nor the integrator were happy with the end result.

I then saw a post in Crew Call by rAVe’s own Joel Rollins titled “Unified Everything?” in which Joel spoke to the trend of what he called “convergence” in equipment, where devices are being built to handle multiple purposes as opposed to being built as separate stand alone pieces of gear.

Quick aside: I take exception to Joel’s use of the term “convergence” in this scenario, as convergence in AV means something different, but I’ve written a much more intensive piece on that to be released shortly.  By Joel’s definition, I guess “convergence” has been happening for quite some time, and the Home Theater Receiver, seeing that it replaced a traditional Stereo Tuner, a PreAmp, and an Amplifier, could even be considered a “convergent” device.  Maybe not.

To get back on track, Joel made the point that these all-in-one or multi-purpose devices could be likened to a Swiss Army knife.  It can get the job done, but at the end of the day, he’d rather have his tool box full of purpose built tools instead.

So both of these men, whose backgrounds in AV are not in question at all here, take the slant that the “out-of-the-box” solution is at best a “Swiss Army knife” or at worst “moronified”.

Is this really a fair assessment in general terms?

The answer to that question is “It depends.”

This is where we get into the question of Technical Merit vs. Practical Application.  Are we building the system to meet our ideas of what the system should be, or are we building a system that meets the customer’s needs and expectations?  I would argue that building systems that are overcomplicated and include features that the client doesn’t want, need, or value just because we think the system is “better” that way could also be considered the “Moronification of AV.”

Consolidation of multiple devices into a simplified out of the box solution could in fact be a very smart move in many cases.

Look at Vaddio with their GroupStation and HuddleStation products.  These products create a simple out of the box solution.  The camera and speakers are unified into a single device.  The VOIP phone, dial pad, and video switcher are unified into one device.  These are in fact, the equivalent of a “Swiss Army knife” that is “fast and easy and cheap to install right out of the box”.  However, I would hardly call it “moronified” and in fact may place it more at the genius end of the spectrum.

Would a traditional codec, array of microphones placed at each seating location, a DSP, Amplifier, Video Switcher, PTZ HD camera, and installed speakers driven by a control processor with a touch panel interface “technically” be better?  Sure. . . depending on the context.

An integrator’s true value is bringing together the context of what the system needs to do within the space that it is installed and the specification of the equipment.  In a 6 person Huddle Room with a small table and 46″ display, the Vaddio system may be just the fit.

One of my PMs I worked with always used to say “Horses for Courses” when talking about the way he looked at system design.  The horse that wins on a small circle track doing multiple laps may be completely different than the horse you run on a track with long straightaways.  Integrators always need to be conscious of when their pride in designing technically complex systems may start to affect their ability to see the merits of a smaller out of the box solution in certain applications.

There is value in selling both, and even more value in guiding the client through the process, showing them that you consider everything on the table, and then start designing after you know the goals and space involved, not before.

I used to joke with clients when I was an integrator that the most important tool I had was a blank piece of paper.  I explained that, “I don’t come in with a line card of things to sell.  Instead I come in to learn what you want to do.”

So sometimes even the toolbox, with all its purpose built, highly specialized individual tools, may be the wrong thing to bring with you if you are going on a 300 mile hike and have only the room in your pockets.  Context makes the Swiss Army knife a great choice sometimes, as only a true “moron” would try to shove a toolbox in their pocket.

What say you?  Tell me I’m right or pick a fight (you won’t win) in the comments below!