The Cloud and the Church

how-future-0712

By Anthony Coppedge

The promise of ‘The Cloud,’ Internet-based software access and storage, has firmly taken root in both the desktop and mobile spaces. Even if people can’t easily articulate what ‘The Cloud’ means, they do know that their favorite companies, such as Google, Amazon and Apple, have made cloud-based services a big deal and an everyday occurrence. Churches, too, are adopting cloud-based tools such as online church management software, service scheduling software, volunteer management, file storage (Dropbox being a key leader) and document sharing.

The A/V/L industry has, of course, been providing some cloud-enabled technologies for several years now, but has been slow to develop vertical-market applications to help add value to their products and services. Some applications have made headway, such as digital signage, but that’s largely because hosted content is logistically beneficial for management and curation. And the control systems big boys, Crestron and AMX, have been thinking this way for a long time and are continually innovating due to the growth and ubiquity of mobile devices and 24/7 Internet access.

Network-able Is Not Enough

I remember back in the ‘90s how Cat5 network LAN ports began cropping up on all kind of A/V/L gear. The speed of the networks was more than fast enough for instruction transfer for things like SMPTE, MIDI and DMX, so the computer networking interface was integrated into the media space.

Today, it’s expected that just about any piece of electronics is addressable (thanks largely to IR and RS232), but there’s a difference in being on a network and on the Internet.

Having gear addressable is helpful for status checks and basis communication, but in today’s broadband world, the industry should be doing a lot better. In the past, manufacturers almost always made their software proprietary, sometimes going so far as to have unique platforms within the own brand for software/firmware access. Eventually, the late ‘90s and early 2000s saw Windows-based software for adding additional functionality to what would otherwise be status-only commands. Very few bothered to create both PC and Mac-compatible software, so even an all-Mac church would still have the token PC running just for these situations.

The guys at AMX and Crestron have this figured out and have provided their own software (proprietary once again) to be the central command-and-control point for anything with a communications-capable setup. That’s not such a bad world, and no offense to the control guys, but that’s just too far behind the times — especially considering the consumer world of fast, cheap and reliable web-based tools. I’m not suggesting AMX and Crestron are going the way of the Dodo, but I am saying that the potential value add is to leverage browser-based and mobile-based platforms that are open source to pave the way to better integration and access.

Mobile Isn’t the Future, It’s Right Now

In the A/V/L space, I can think of only a few environments (military, NOCs, etc.) where a non-proprietary, web/mobile-based open source platform wouldn’t be incredibly valuable. With login access controls, even publicly available systems (corporate networks, blogs, online database access) have made their way to the cloud and to mobile device access.

Churches — especially multi-site/multi-campus/multi-venue — are begging for anytime, anywhere access to their technology. From iOS to Android to browser-based platforms, we’re used to being able to control our consumer technology with ease. It’s super easy to set my DVR to record whatever I want from anywhere I have a cell or Wi-Fi signal. I can check to see if my NEST heating and air conditioning control has left the air on. I’m used to mobile access and mobile control of certain programming. Where is this in the A/V/L world?

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Sure, some manufacturers are offering web-based access (yea!), but mobile-platform specific control? Look around: It’s the glaringly obvious elephant in the room. Or maybe it’s the missing elephant in the room!

It’s not unreasonable to be able to want at least mobile access to my A/V/L technology without requiring me to put in a full-blown third-party control system. I may benefit from said control system, but what I’m saying is that it shouldn’t be required.

And lest the systems integrators think I’m leaving them on the sidelines of this discussion, I believe by adding open source mobile and browser-based platforms to the mix, these integrators can add additional service opportunities to their installations, once again endearing them to the client for being a partner in ensuring their technology success.

The Cloud and the Church

Stepping beyond the immediate future, it’s not hard to envision entire divisions of integrators focusing on address-ability, control-ability, program-ability and adding the pièce de résistance of content sharing and curation. Any multi-venue organization will have the desire (if not the outright need) to not only monitor system performance, but system resource sharing.

Going back to the network scenario, the idea of pushing content — whether that’s video/screen content, audio content and/or communication/control content — to multiple devices is both a smart level of control and redundancy. In the church world, I’d call this volunteer-proofing the systems and processes.

Think, for example, of standardizing on technology in multiple venues and sharing the media content on the cloud to every device that needs a signal. Or sharing cue notes for a synchronized media playback across multiple venues or locations while updating curated content for geographic specific contexts. The possibilities are endless, but the common factor is the cloud. Which, of course, takes us back to the original point of creating browser- and mobile-based open source platforms (or, at the least, a recognized industry standard platform for the Web).

Playing Nicely Together

I suppose this may be something of a pipe dream if the manufacturers don’t want to play nicely together by sharing, minimally, a freely-accessible platform. Even so, if the brains of the engineering societies could link arms across the audio, video and lighting industry, the standardization of a mobile platform isn’t such a far-off idea.

In the meantime, the power of the Internet has clearly shifted the ultimate decision-making power in the hands of the consumer. Both manufacturers and integration firms will see the handwriting on the wall: go mobile or get left behind. The consumer world isn’t always the best leader, but where innovation happens, people tend to follow. Churches are just like other organizations: They’re looking for solutions to their week-in, week-out problems; they just simply focus on weekend problems. Addressing this need isn’t simply beneficial to the house of worship market, it is a necessary step into the current century and a future of mobile access, control and curation.

1999 is calling and it wants its 9-pin RS232 controls back.

A former staff member at three mega churches and church technology consultant, Anthony Coppedge has developed a respected reputation as a leader in technical and communications circles within the church marketplace. Reach him at anthony@anthonycoppedge.com