Is interoperability an issue the AV world doesn't want to fix?

There is a dichotomy at the very heart of interoperability in the AV world that will probably never be solved says Paul Milligan.

Technology is an ever-evolving beast. We all get used to one technology and another comes along to replace it. One piece of technology becomes popular, other similar versions (faster, cheaper, easier to use) appear and become our new favourites. That’s why it’s such an interesting industry to work in. Change is exciting.

True interoperability between different platforms and products in the AV world has always been tantalisingly just out of reach for integrators and end users. Some (lucky) products have become ubiquitous within one to two years of their launch, and an eco system will develop around it (peripherals, cables, furniture etc), which takes another one to two years. Just as that process comes to fruition a new product/platform is released into the market which renders that technology obsolete. That doesn’t mean the dream of interoperability is forever unachievable, but it needs lots of different factors to come together at the same time, something which just hasn’t happened yet. But now that Microsoft, in the form of its Teams software, has its teeth well and truly sunk into the AV world, that could be about to happen.

Interoperability is an issue that affects integrators every day, but does the lack of it actually stop integrators doing their jobs, or at least make it a lot harder than it should be? The mass response to that question can probably be best summed as a resigned sigh, as this from Stuart Davidson, technical director from global integration group Kinly demonstrates: “It makes the job more difficult, but it’s what we do. The interoperability is where an integrator adds value.” This response, which was wholly typical of the integrators we spoke to on this issue, highlights the essential problem at the heart of the debate on interoperability in the AV world. “If everything just worked together it would take our skillsets away,” says Andy Mussell, commercial sales manager from integrator Avensys.

Do integrators really want interoperability if it was offered to them? It seems as though the current drive for interoperability isn’t even coming from integrators, but from end users and IT managers. “IT managers want everything in a box to work together. Historically when you look at the IT world, everything has always worked together, you can build a PC with different components from different manufacturers, and it’s always going to work together. And that’s what they want the AV world to do for them. But it doesn’t work that way at the moment,” adds Mussell. “I think the end user is quite demanding at the moment, with hybrid working they want the ability to adapt from Teams to Zoom to WebEx to Google Hangouts etc very quickly,” says Becky Parker, general manager for integrator TenAV. “The complexity in how the current setup works and how we’re able to achieve this can be a little bit un-user friendly and a bit clunky, which creates more issues in terms of support calls.”

(Paul Todd, Solotech)

One consolation is that the situation is improving in comparison to 5 or 10 years ago, but has come at a price. “Before, one customer would be on an island and another customer would be on another island, and it was very hard for them to communicate. Now, we are finding that natively a lot of the UC platforms allow interoperability to allow customers to communicate, that’s good because it’s easy for the customer, but not so good for us as a business because it means we’re not adding value around interoperability anymore,” says Davidson. “Compared to years ago it’s definitely better,” says Paul Todd, applications and design support services manager for AV group Solotech. Todd has kept a keen eye on AV protocols such as Dante and AVB and has seen a lack of interoperability between them. “The big protocols such as Dante have covered what CobraNet used to do. The weaknesses are the other protocols, if you’ve got an issue with Digico, who used to be in the MADI space, trying to get that onto a Dante network was an issue, but it’s definitely better than it used to be.”

As this decade progresses we seem to have found ourselves in a position where several platforms have become the default in AV, and luckily for interoperability benefits that number is quite low. Windows has been the default business platform since the 1990s and that doesn’t look like changing, since Covid, Zoom and Teams have become the two dominant UC platforms (with WebEx also in the mix), and Dante is now the default for transporting audio (ahead of AVB) signals. Has this reduction in platforms made things simpler for integrators? “It makes it a lot easier. We’re finding it easier to find kit for a Microsoft Teams Room that works well if you are putting audio and video together,” says Mussell. Fewer platforms have another benefit too adds Parker, “The reduction definitely helps interoperability, but it’s allowing us to become more expert in them too. We’re looking at the trends and what is working well, and we’re becoming specialists in those areas to make sure we know exactly what we’re doing.”

Kit that sits in the middle in-between other equipment, like AV switches, can be crucial to achieving real interoperability says Don Lambresa, CEO from Project AV. “What is important right now is that the right switch is specified so you’ve got the interoperability all the way through a chain of kit. Switches are key to interoperability because we put all this great kit on it, that we know works, but if that piece in the middle doesn’t do its job properly that kit won’t work. Then the client will say ‘That kit you sold me is rubbish, it doesn’t work properly,’ we know it works properly, but it’s just not set up properly.”

Who is actually responsible for establishing interoperability in the AV world could probably form its own five-page article in Inavate, suffice to say no one is really taking the lead, manufacturers, end users or integrators. Should it not fall to manufacturers to ensure their kit works with others, or is the very essence of what a system integrator does is making sure box A talks to box B? The integrator has to take the lead says Project AV COO Steve Hudson. “It’s down to us to make sure that once that room goes in, everything interoperates together, all the firmware, all the software, that should lie with the integrator. However, it should also be the integrators job to liaise with manufacturers.” Fundamentally, as an integrator, our value lies in bringing platforms together adds Davidson, but there are other factors at play here he adds. “Some manufacturers drive proprietary technologies for their own agenda, and not necessarily for the benefit of customers.”

(Steve Hudson, Project AV)

Interoperability is a double-edge sword says Solotech’s Todd, “Does it give us more creativity and bigger systems to play with? As integrators we take advantage of the fact that some things don’t overlap.” He highlights a recent example on a project which involved lots of bridging. “It’s becoming a compromise with big designs, on a recent job we’ve had issues with the accruing latency because we’ve got so many protocol conversions. We’re good as integrators because we’ve solved the problem, but we’re creating a problem at the same time, because it’s not slick.”

One way to resolve interoperability issues is to stick with the tried and tested. Once you find kit that plays nicely together, why not repeat that design again? Mussell’s example is a typical one, “Our go-to at the moment for a large meeting room would be a Shure audio system married up with Crestron.” Pairing the same kit can become a habit when you know it works says Parker, “If it fits the end user case why not recommend it? We’ll always explore options outside of different budget ranges, etc. But as a general rule, yeah, it’s pretty easy to do that. As long as the customer is happy, and it’s reliable, that’s what everyone wants.”

When things don’t work, and kit doesn’t talk to each other as you have been assured it would, is help at hand? Do integrators find they get the help they need or are they pushed from pillar to post by different manufacturers? Size matters admits Kinly’s Davidson, “Our scale helps us on that front,” whereas others such as Avensys aren’t quite so fortunate. “It’s a numbers game, if I’ve got 1,000 units that need this slight change, they’re going to take a look into it. If they have 1,000 companies asking them for the same thing then they’ll look into it. If you are just one company asking for something, definitely not,” says Mussell. The help offered can differ greatly too admits Parker, she sites Yealink, Intel and Shure as being particularly good in providing assistance, “Others will ask if you’ve tried powering it off and on again.” Many we spoke to reported being pushed from manufacturer A to manufacturer B in an attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility.

(Stuart Davidson, Kinly)

“It does tend to be the bigger manufacturers, especially the ones without localised support who try and bat the problem to someone else and it becomes like ping-pong,” adds Parker. Integrators should take the lead in problem-solving says Davidson, “We should have done our diligence, it’s up to us to prove that a device isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do, and then ask for the right level of support.” The level of service you receive is often when you see different platform or manufacturer agendas play out says Todd. “If there’s a certain manufacturer that has chosen AVB or Milan, you know there’s not much support (available) in terms of AES67. Some of them are quite stubborn and think AVB is the only protocol you should have. My response is you’re not enterprise ready, you’re tunnel visioned, this works for your normal crowd (rental and staging) but we’re integrators and we have different needs, especially as we’re getting more on to enterprise networks.”

Because of the increased shift towards software in the AV world, it’s clear that firmware fixes have become a significant aid to interoperability. If something doesn’t work first time it’s likely a firmware update will do the job, it’s become to integrators what the soldering iron was in the 80s and 90s. “If you raise a case with anyone the first question is always ‘can you tell us what the latest firmware is?’ that’s the default,” says Parker. In a software driven world, firmware and software have absolutely become a key contributor to an awful lot of issues, and a lot of resolutions admits Davidson, but it’s “just a reflection on how product service and problems are now identified has had to really evolve in the last few years”.

The very core of the debate around interoperability can be summed up by this last quote from Andy Mussell; “The value-add we provide is figuring it all out, if it was all plug and play you’d get electricians doing AV installs.” Integrators undoubtedly want more cooperation and communication between proAV manufacturers, to make sure box A talks to box B better than it does at the moment, but if all the challenge went out of solving problems on-site, when you are up against deadline, then it just wouldn’t be the same job anymore.



We're going to be exploring the topic of interoperability again in May with a focus on manufacturers. What are technology vendors doing to ensure cross-brand interoperability and where do product developers think the responsibility lies to make sure technologies within a system work harmoniously together?

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