It’s been over a year since my last installment in this series, so I thought it was a good time to reflect on where things are and where they seem to be going. I completely missed the mark on touchless control! But I think the need to diversify our skills as AV programmers is more apparent than ever. Prepare yourself, things look a bit bleak.
Supply-chain problems have plagued every install we’ve done for the past year. At first, we couldn’t get anything shipped: displays, switchers, DSPs, microphones, control processors, you name it. Today, some things are better, but Crestron equipment still seems to have the longest lead times. Some estimated ship dates are a year out at this point!
I’m not sure what’s happening at Crestron. They must be losing a ton of business because they can’t fill orders. They recently announced they’re retiring many products, and I’m guessing that’s so they can distribute the components they do have into the products that sell the most. But since we can’t readily get their products, we’ve been substituting other manufacturers. At the end of the day, it all boils down to customer experience. Is the customer still happy with the system and its operation? Do they even care what’s powering the system underneath?
Something I heard a customer say at the start of 2022 resonated with me: “Why can’t we just simplify this down to the one or two boxes that we can actually get?” So what was originally planned as a fully-integrated Crestron Flex system ended up turning into a Logitech soundbar. No programming required now, so I was taken off the project. I can’t fault the customer. If the Logitech system does everything they need–primarily making Zoom calls–and they want to start using it next month, why wait around for Crestron?
For the projects where we can’t avoid some type of control processor, we’ve been looking at both old and new players alike: AMX, Extron, Kramer, and QSC. I’ve been programming AMX longer than Crestron, so I am looking forward to getting back into that mindset. I’ve just recently picked up Kramer and QSC, and they both try to make control easy to do without any real programming. Extron is solid, and I’d like to explore their Python programming in more detail. It seems for the equipment we can get, you don’t need much programming experience to get something working.
It feels like I’m being nudged away from bespoke systems into the one-size-fits-all market. Maybe it goes hand-in-hand with adopting Zoom over traditional H323/SIP conferencing? There’s probably still room to provide a custom solution built on-top of this technology, but it doesn’t seem to be as open to integrating as the hardware codecs of yesteryear were. Most of my work these days is structured around adding minimal room controls behind the Zoom UI.
But I have to admit: I only see a small slice of the whole AV industry. Maybe there are other companies where custom programming still thrives? I have to imagine the story is similar no matter where you look though:
- List of delayed projects continues to grow while waiting for one or two key pieces
- Crestron control and DM ship dates keep slipping
- Alternatives are considered and options are presented to the customer
- A simpler or temporary system is installed while waiting for product to ship
- Months go by and the client seems to accept the simpler system as Good Enough
I’m worried this continual acceptance of Good Enough is driving down everyone’s expectations for AV systems.
Crestron has culled their product catalog, removing many of what were considered the “high-end” components. At first glance, this is shocking, but I do think it’s smart in the long term. With the focus shifted away from supporting PRO4 and AV4 processors, CP4s will become more readily available. For every job with a PRO4, I’ve had at least five with CP4s. And now that the super-large DM chassis are retired, NVX will be easier to obtain and spec for jobs that require hundreds of endpoints. I suspect in the future, the PRO4 may return if demand warrants it and components are no longer in short supply. But Crestron seems to be doing the right thing to get over the supply-chain hump right now.
Turning to VC4 is a good way to get around missing hardware, and Crestron has greatly simplified the licensing for it. From a service standpoint, I’d still prefer a dedicated RMC4 per room rather than have to manage a single Linux server responsible for hundreds of rooms. I’m sure I’ll be dragged kicking into the future once the VC4 architecture supports high-availability and redundancy options. It might also make sense to try to build an appliance-like server that only runs 10 or so rooms, but the licensing costs are going to be much more expensive than a CP4.
I do see a continued trend into simpler spaces where all that’s needed is a display and a camera/soundbar. Since almost everything is networked now, the need to put specialized hardware in every room is going away. If everything can connect to the Internet, your control application can live there (this is how Kramer does it). This does push us towards the one-size-fits-all model, so maybe programmers are needed more at the manufacturing level instead?
I’ve put 16 years into this field and for nearly half of that time I’ve worried my job is being eliminated. I think the reality is that technology changes, so where I’ve put my focus changes as well. I’m not the same programmer I was back then, but I’ve always been eager to expand my craft.
I watched my old company shrink its AV programming team from 5 down to 1 (just me). I took that as a sign I should be branching out, finding opportunities in other fields. As a lone programmer, I never got a break between projects to plan ahead. Last year, I left that company and joined a new one. I’m still the lone programmer, but now I see opportunity to grow a team… once we start reliably getting product again.
I hope the coming year shows supply-chains returning to normal and project schedules settling back into… well, those were never great. I think there are a lot of possibilities opening up now that hardware controllers have software counterparts. Maybe the world grinding to a halt was the push needed to finally make it happen?