In a world of Interoperability the 'us at both ends' approach doesn't work anymore

The blame for a lack of interoperability was placed at the feet of manufacturers in an article earlier this year. Paul Milligan gives them the right of response.

Your view on interoperability in the AV world is dictated by your job function and line of work. That was something we found out when we spoke to system integrators in the February 2022 issue (see article HERE). Not enough support was being offered by manufacturers when something went wrong on site when trying to connect kit from different manufacturers. They were pushed from manufacturer to manufacturer without anyone taking responsibility once a problem had occurred. The amount of help they received was dictated by the size of their company (and spending capacity), and too many manufacturers were still trying to push them down a ‘our brand and no one else’ path, which limits creativity but also affects project budget. With that in mind we felt it only fair to give manufacturers the right to reply on this issue. To get a full picture of what’s involved we also spoke with some of those involved in some of the protocols/platforms that have become prevalent in the AV world.

We began by asking them the same first question, was the issue of interoperability in the AV world getting better or worse than it was five or ten years ago? “It’s better for sure,” says Justin Kennington, tech president of the SDVoE Alliance, “Because there are now people on the manufacturing side of things that are paying attention and trying to make it happen, five or ten years ago that that simply wasn't true.”

Rob Moodey, sales account manager from Matrox Video, thinks interoperability has got worse. He says the success of the ISE show has shown how much the AV world has grown recently, but that has resulted in a growth in complexity too. “The proliferation of IP has amplified it, and that convergence has brought audio, video and data together. Making everything play together wasn't something that followed automatically because the complexity has increased. A lot of the manufacturers take an ‘us at both ends’ approach, it’s the easiest one to fault-find because it's the easy to recreate, but some of them go as far as to say that's the only one we support. It didn’t used to be like that.”

Stijn Ooms, director of product strategy at Crestron feels things have got better from a hardware perspective, “In the past you were very limited in the integration that was possible within infrared, today the majority is moving over IP. From a software perspective, I wouldn’t say it’s worse, but the number of options has increased. Now you can interop between two devices or between a device and the cloud, or between two clouds.”

Ooms wasn’t the only one to split his answer into different parts, Trent Wagner, Q-SYS audio product manager for QSC, says interoperability in networked audio has got much better in the last five to ten years because of the proliferation of Dante (and AES67) in particular, “We now have a very widely adopted set of protocols that a lot of manufacturers have implemented.  Control is also fairly interoperable, especially when you consider there’s a lot of standards for it, including just regular serial control and TCP IP and UDP IP, HTTP.” Things are not so simple when it comes to video however he maintains, “Things are much more walled off, every manufacturer has their own secret sauce and special codecs, in the pursuit of the utmost quality, and lowest latency.”

Kennington insists interoperability has to get better, for the sake of the entire industry. “More and more the IT department is involved in the AV sale. They expect interoperability. The AV world of 10 or 20 years ago where some manufacturers built their products as a walled garden is so foreign and just insane to the IT buyer that I don’t think we as an industry can survive if we don’t adapt from that.” 

This quote from Bob Elhers, vice president of business planning from Audinate, probably sums up best where we are right now with interoperability. “The things that need to interoperate, do. Do they interoperate with all the depth of features that everybody wants? No. If you want to have the depth of feature richness, and be on the bleeding edge of capability, then you do still have to look at proprietary systems.”

Given that manufacturers are only one part of a larger chain of products that can see them sit alongside 20 or 30 different manufacturers, are the demands system integrators place on manufacturers a little unrealistic? “A lot of end users have feature requests and demands which aren’t always possible without moving mountains,” says Ooms. It can be unrealistic given the size and scope of what each company is asking for admits Wagner. “The two strategies you have to take as a company is first of all, is that a product we want to make for our platform so that we can alleviate that pain point for the integrator? Or is it something that we need to create to build a more open system to allow them to integrate that product or possibly partner with a company that’s in high demand to integrate that product?”

This dichotomy represents an opportunity for smaller manufacturers in the AV world says Kennington. “It makes sense that every manufacturer wants to protect their own turf, every manufacturer understands the value of interoperability, and the customer demand for it, but they are still hesitant to lead with that story. It feels dissonant to them. And yet it’s the one of the only ways I think the small guys can become the big guys. The big guys can say ‘we know you’re demanding this, but this is what we have, and I bet you’ll buy it anyway’. This is the opportunity for the small guys to band together.”

It really comes down to business opportunity, and time and effort involved adds Wagner, and that seems to be the crux of this particular issue, manufacturers just don’t have the time or resources to fix every issue, some things are just not economically viable. But as Kennington suggests, could that also be an opportunity too?

The IT world is often held up as a model of interoperability, so is the AV world behind IT in this regard? Are there lessons we should be learning from them? “AV is behind IT, but we’re tracking behind. As we get on to IP platforms there’ll be a lot more standardisation of things,” says Elhers. Manufacturers are clearly trying to address this issue however, “One credo of Q-SYS is to leverage as much open source and off the shelf solutions as possible to use things that have been going on in the IT world
for the past 20+ years, and with that, we should get some level of interoperability or at least re-use,” says Wagner. Crestron is another to look to IT for inspiration as Ooms explains, “XiO Cloud enabled us to take AV to a more IT-centric platform from a deployment point of view. Up until a few years ago for a firmware update you still needed to be in the room plugging a USB cable to the actual device. That’s not scalable for hundreds of meeting rooms in an enterprise. Today, the tools are there, now it’s just a matter of training the AV community in that methodology.”

Another IT-led initiative is IMPX, of whch Matrox Video has been a big supporter. IPMX (Internet Protocol Media Experience) is a set of open standards and specifications for AVoIP which address the ProAV industry’s need for a set of standards and protocols in the transition to IP infrastructures. The IPMX standard is designed to transport and control of compressed and uncompressed video and audio, including 4Kp60 with 4:4:4 colour, over standard 1GB networks.

Where do manufacturers think the responsibility lies with interoperability, is it with them, or trade associations or some of the alliances that have emerged over the years? “As a manufacturer, unless you address interoperability, you’re forcing yourself to be in a ‘us at both ends’ world and that’s not the way to deliver the best value and choice which the market deserves. So the manufacturers have certainly got to take on some of the weight,” says Moodey. Microsoft has entered into partnerships with the likes of Intel, Shure, Microsoft and Zoom, to help increase its products interoperability with those companies. Justin Kennington from the SDVoE Alliance would like AVIXA to get more involved, “I would love AVIXA to come out in the system design recommendation, as part of the CTS training and say its best practice is to only use interoperable products so your customer isn’t locked into a single manufacturer.” There are other issues stopping manufacturers getting heavily involved as Ooms illustrates, “We’ve been asking the same question for the past 20 years about standardisation - Is it needed? Will it make everybody’s life easier? Sometimes if you do it you have to give up on features and functionality if you go ahead with it.”

In the original piece system integrators spoke of being pushed from manufacturer to manufacturer when an error had occurred. Is this fair? And if so is more training needed at the manufacturer end to deal with complex or one-off issues? It’s an impossible situation it seems, “You can’t possibly imagine what the customer is going to do in the end. And you always get yourself into some situation that you’ve never seen before and never planned for,” says QSC’s Wagner. “When you’re dealing with a lot of third party companies and third party protocols, there are lots of ropes for the integrator to hang themselves, as far as how they go about solving the problems and integrating the system.”

For someone like Audinate, who created the Dante platform and doesn’t strictly sell a product you can buy off-the-shelf, it can often mean you are stuck in the middle of a dispute says Ehlers. “When somebody gets into that battle of manufacturers, they typically call us and we act as the intermediary to resolve who’s actually responsible for this. We don’t want to be that middle guy. We want the manufacturers who are making money from support contracts to be the ones that are solving these problems.”

For the SDVoE Alliance, this is where the system designer and integrator training it provides can come to the rescue for three reasons explains Kennington. “First, they might just solve it themselves before they need to call anybody’s tech support, the second point is the better equipped they’re going to be to know who to call first, i.e. is it the Christie box or the ZeeVee box that is causing the problem for example? And lastly, to be best equipped to have a discussion with ZeeVee or Christie to say these boxes are talking to each other, here’s what’s happening, here’s what’s not happening, I think the problem is with you, and here’s why.” The nature of some of the issues that occur can make training a moot point however adds Ooms, “For the one-off problems, you cannot create training for things you don’t know. Very often when we get these questions is the first time anybody has tried to do that.”

Is the introduction of new protocols making things better or worse in regard to interoperability, or is it just part of normal technological progress to have new protocols come along every now and then? “Innovation is baked in,” says Elhers, “Yes it makes it harder, because instead of one way of doing something, we have 20 ways. And until we figure out who of those 20 are the winners we’ve got to pick which ones we’re going to support, and then we have to test them.” It’s part of evolution says Kennington, “There is a tendency to want to crowd the space a little bit, once people see AVoIP is getting big, it becomes a marketing approach to say things are interoperable, so let’s make up something interoperable. It does attract that kind of thing, which I think is a net harm. But overall, developing new standards is a way to develop new ideas.”

Change in AV is inevitable says Wagner. “You’re always going to have new protocols come along, hopefully they’re coming along to solve a unique problem. And if that problem is big enough, then those protocols will become big enough to get noticed and become widely adopted. You just have to take that in stride and evaluate it as it comes along, but it does cause disruption and make things worse for a while.”

Maybe interoperability will always stay out of reach says Kennington, because of the very nature the AV industry has always worked. He uses the example of the HDBaseT Alliance, SDVoE Alliance and Dante to back his point. “In all three of those cases a for-profit company has seen a market opportunity, a problem that needs to be solved, and then built a standard around it. That’s what has worked in pro-AV. Standards bodies creating things prima facie and then saying ‘OK, now it’s ready, let’s build it’ has never worked because pro-AV moves too fast. We don’t have time to wait for the standard to be written, we’ve got jobs to install.”


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