The audiovisual (AV) sector has been a useful refuge for resellers of more mainstream IT products, driven to it by ever more depressed margins in their core markets. But now this handy source of incremental revenue is suffering its own margin erosion.
So will IT resellers now abandon AV, or are there ways they can prop up their earnings from it by sticking with the cutting edge while seeking to add value?
Ian Vickerage, managing director of AV distributor the Imago Group, believes there is plenty to keep resellers interested, provided they keep up with the changing nature of the market. It's all about applications these days, he says.
"Generally speaking AV technology is no longer sold as a productivity tool," Vickerage warns. "Displays are now commodity products and are no longer seen as productivity enhancers. But the situation is different when it comes to applications that use displays."
According to Vickerage, videoconferencing, data and web conferencing, electronic signage and video streaming are all good examples of AV applications that help people to be more productive.
"If I wanted to meet colleagues in Manchester, I could expect to spend a day and a half travelling there and back, plus the cost of transport and hotels, or I could simply carry out the meeting by videoconference," he says.
"If I'm a board director earning £100,000 per annum, doing this once per month I save at least £9,000 per year, and pay for my videoconferencing investment in those first 12 months."
He also gives the example of digital signage, which he says is much more cost-effective to use for advertising at point-of-sale than advertising on TV.
Vickerage adds that in all of these instances, the key differentiator is not the display but the content. He claims resellers that win this kind of business make money by supplying the total solution and by working with manufacturers that are focused on applications which increase productivity.
The increased productivity that end-users demand is driven not only by applications but by technologies that are evolving quickly and allow a lot more AV power to be delivered by a lot less kit.
Dan Moore, projectors product manager at Hewlett-Packard, says developments in networking connections and portability are important in this respect.
"You can now pack an incredible amount of technology into a small form factor, meaning that business people on the road can carry a projector the size of a paperback book in their briefcase and deliver an impressive presentation whenever they need to," he says.
"One-touch synchronisation with a laptop or PDA and wireless technology makes it easy to run a presentation without fiddling with set up menus and wires."
Moore believes wireless AV could well be the key to the market's future, particularly for IT resellers looking for a profitable future in the sector.
"For resellers, wireless AV kit provides numerous opportunities to cross-sell and bundle kit together," he says. "For example, offer mobile workers all of the kit they need for communications and presentations on the road, by combining a notebook or PDA with a portable projector as a complete package."
This view seems to prevail at the customer-facing end of the supply chain.
David Gould, at PC World Business, says much of the cost of installation comes from physically connecting the projector to the PC. This is a cost that could be saved with wireless, thus increasing the customer's reason to buy.
"In addition, physical wiring can limit where the projector is installed," he says.
Gould adds that there is also an aesthetic advantage to having minimal wiring to a projector, with installations losing appeal because of the number of cables connected to the unit. Another benefit is in the multi-user environment, where meeting participants can connect a number of PCs wirelessly to the projector.
Wireless AV is an important future market, but very much at the early adopter stage of its lifecycle, according to Mark Richardson, business manager at Epson.
"Wireless sales are on the increase in both business and education. Therefore AV resellers must understand its merits early and provide a wireless offering to those seeking to implement it. Failure to do so now may mean they are left behind in the future," he says.
Richardson adds that there are several factors he believes will stimulate further demand for wireless AV products.
"There is an increase in the use of wireless tablets in the classroom as an alternative to whiteboards. The tablets need a wireless projector to allow the teacher to maintain student attention at the front of the classroom and share student participation with the rest of the class," he says.
On the commercial front, Richardson foresees businesses benefiting from the ease of set-up and simple installation offered by wireless technology, particularly in meetings where one or more presenters are required.
"Wireless technology offers businesses a much easier and slicker solution than a wired connection," he says. "Why would you bother fumbling with a cable to swap laptops onto the projector during a multiple presentation when you can seamlessly connect using wireless technology?"
But as any student of the market knows, there's wireless and there's wireless.
"The hot new technology to watch is wireless 802.11g," claims John Beeden, head of business at NEC UK's business equipment division. This, he says, enables animation and video transmission in real time, which was not possible with 802.11b technology.
"Many firms have been holding off installations until the new technology becomes available, so there are serious opportunities for resellers with the capability to deliver in this area," Beeden says.
The emergence of wireless 802.11g may drive demand for advanced AV installations, he adds. But even with this advance in technology installations will still not be totally wireless because full-screen video is not yet available on 802.11g.
Beeden is alert to one of the challenges facing networking resellers in the AV space: competition from dedicated AV dealers. He believes both are converging on the most profitable areas of the market.
"The traditional specialist AV resellers now realise the margin opportunities within networking systems. They are improving their skills in this area, as well as attending to their usual markets.
"IT resellers traditionally have been focused on the corporate market, where their networking experience is particularly strong. The fact that most products have an IP address provides the opportunity to supply maintenance and preventative maintenance, offering additional margin and ensuring customer satisfaction."
IT resellers with strong networking experience are best placed to capitalise on the growing market for networked AV installations such as sophisticated multi-media presentation suites or corporate boardrooms, he believes.
Paul McKeever, marketing manager for business at Sony, says the vendor is encouraging more networking resellers to enter the AV market. "In some cases, they will be better placed to understand the installation process, but it ultimately depends on the customer," he says.
Vickerage believes the IP era presents clear AV chances to the forward-looking networking reseller. "Clearly with conferencing, digital video and digital signage being important applications in this market, there is a huge requirement to send video and voice over IP networks," he says.
"As a distributor, it's our job to show resellers what's in it for them. Traditional AV resellers do not possess the right skills, although videoconferencing specialists have shown the way by learning networking skills and have succeeded."
Another believer in the marriage of AV and IP is Stephen North, managing director of SwitchIP. He believes IP is key to the successful delivery of AV content.
"The AV hardware market is constantly evolving, but without a transport system that can deliver reliable business-quality real-time videoconferencing, firms will not make the investment," North says.
"It's like the voice over IP market a couple of years ago. Without guaranteed quality of service and a reasonable entry price point, everyone will talk enthusiastically about it, but most firms stay well clear."
He adds that SwitchIP has developed InPurple to this end. "It delivers voice, data and real time videoconferencing over a single secure and affordable IP network," he claims.
"And it has huge benefits for the channel because it opens up the market to companies - particularly SMEs - that couldn't otherwise afford high-quality videoconferencing capabilities."
The growth of IP-driven AV solutions may be one of the factors helping to converge the worlds of AV and IT. Moore is in no doubt that the two are coming together.
"Convergence between AV and IT technology is leading to a corresponding convergence between the resellers promoting AV kit. There are opportunities for both groups to profit," he says.
"You see IT resellers bundling up projectors in a package with notebooks or hand-held computers. At the same time opportunities for AV resellers are increasing as they become involved in complex site audits, planning installations, or adding additional kit such as interactive whiteboards."
Gould sees the same phenomenon from the reseller's perspective. "AV and IT are converging. Looking back at the early days of the projector market, there were many manufacturers, numerous channels to market, clearly defined markets and falling prices," he says.
"On the other hand, in the whiteboard market there were few choices of manufacturers, few channels to market, the market was not clearly defined and prices were stable."
What many networking resellers will want to know, beyond the likely evolutionary paths of AV and IT technologies, is whether their current vertical market experience is leveragable as an asset in the AV space here and now.
Beedon points to the public-display market as a dynamic vertical AV niche, with high levels of demand from retail and leisure. "In these areas particularly organisations are looking to develop more innovative and creative displays," he says.
"This gives resellers an opportunity to sell more advanced, high-margin products and offer value-added services."
Beedon adds that the public sector also offers strong opportunities, with budget allocation for modern communications technology at an all-time high to support modernisation.
"The education market offers significant opportunity to resellers. But resellers need to be fully prepared to provide detailed advice and clearly explain the benefits of particular products in relation to the needs of the classroom," he says.
McKeever considers the education arena and SMEs to be the two best AV markets for the immediate future. But he warns: "There are pros and cons to both markets. Our aim is to help these markets overcome any obstacles they may face during the implementation of AV equipment."
McKeever adds that despite the concerns of many, resellers have definitely not missed the boat to sell AV to the education market. "The sector is by no means saturated," he says. "There is huge potential for other vendors and resellers to leverage the opportunities the market presents. Interactive whiteboards are just one example of this. The education market will see significant growth over the next few years in terms of technology and there is still time to jump on board."
Another man with faith in AV as an SME market is Andy Rump, IT channel manager at AV distributor Steljes Trade.
"When you consider pricing now, AV is not such a dangerous purchase," he says. "In the past when small customers bought AV products it could mean using up the hardware budget for a year, but now it is more like a month."
Vickerage adds that the big vertical markets are government and public institutions, health, automotive, financial and education.
"Education is only a nightmare if you are trying to sell commodity products. It's challenging trying to make margin selling whiteboards and projectors. But the use of videoconferencing in education is only just beginning, and will become all-pervasive," he says.
Markets aside, one thing that most AV players are agreed on is that the market has gone way beyond the simple product sell. So what happened to AV margins?
John Soden, account manager at Hitachi Interactive Solutions, says AV margins are declining because volume production drives prices down. He adds that manufacturers are making many products with similar specifications, such as plasmas and projectors, thus increasing competitiveness.
"Competition is constantly increasing as resellers sell these products to an increasingly aware customer base," he says.
Resellers can counteract this and add value to AV products through accessories, training, installation, consultancy and integration, Soden adds.
"The reseller should stay in contact with customers to look for new solutions or upgrades to existing ones. As technology evolves, new value-added opportunities are formed," he says.
Mike Cole, director of Visual Planet, says today's AV solution must go beyond the 'wow' factor and be able to deliver ongoing return on investment. "The system must become an integrated part of the customer's marketing and promotional activities," he says.
The last word goes to McKeever, who warns about looking too far ahead in search of hot new AV technologies. He says: "AV market success lies among the current offerings. It's about ensuring the products are delivering exactly what customers need and helping them to be as productive as possible."
Epson (01442) 261 144
Imago Group (01635) 294 300
NEC (020) 8993 8111
Sony (01932) 816 000
Steljes (020) 8213 2169
SwitchIP (020) 8664 5554
Visual Planet (0845) 1235 370
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