Are you being served?

Buying software by monthly subscription rather than purchasing licences has become so accepted that it even has its own acronym, SaaS (software-as-a-service). But can the same model be successfully applied to AV? Paul Bray investigates.

CDEC’s service delivery manager, Spiros Andreou certainly thinks so. “AVaaS is a real concept that’s being utilised now by organisations to mitigate specific costs and risks of running services in-house. We’re delivering a variety of managed solutions into a number of key accounts and partners, and interest from CIOs and directors has been driven by favourable analysis from Gartner and the British Computer Society. We expect the service model to become the dominant form of AV procurement and management over the next few years.”

“AVaaS absolutely exists and we’re already offering clients the option to lease products and whole solutions – such as meeting spaces – by subscription,” says Alex Couzins, marketing manager at AVMI. “AVaaS has the potential to make a significant impact, especially for enterprise-wide rollout programmes where transparency and scalability are key.

Standard delivery model

As IT and AV become ever more aligned, so will their charging structures. SaaS is already the standard delivery model for most software-based business applications, and 80 per cent of clients’ IT budgets are spent on support opex versus 20 per  cent on project capex. So why can’t the same be applied to AV?

Adds Couzins: “We’ve already seen a number of distributors start to offer as-a-service pricing tools online. For example Tech Data’s Optimise gives integrators easy access to all the distributor’s available solution SKUs on an as-a-service basis.”

Other experts are a little more guarded, but still essentially positive. “AVaaS does exist although it’s perhaps not yet as widespread as we’d expect,” says Yoeri Gabriel, EMEA marketing director at RMG Networks.

“AVaaS as a larger market is still in the early stages, but its future is certainly real,” adds Joe Lloyd, vice-president of global marketing and business development at NanoLumens.

Of course the market for AV services is well established, and it’s these that have formed the basis for the pioneering AVaaS offerings. “AV services such as support (helpdesk, on-site engineers, third line), consultancy (pre- and post-install) and content for signage and messaging have been offered successfully for many years,” says Andreou.

“Companies that have historically offered these services have already learned the painful lessons of scaling up (and down), adopting their customers’ service models and integrating with their existing processes, and are now offering a new generation of value-add services such as remote asset management and monitoring, visual communications strategy management, and full-service consult/design/provision/manage.”

“The most obvious AVaaS offering is monitoring and managing spaces and the devices in them,” says Kor Baydurcan, director for software products and enterprise solutions at Crestron. “Analytics and artificial intelligence is another area that’s very much evolving.”

AV applications as SaaS

What’s changed recently is that actual AV applications are now being offered as-a-service. “There are several offerings available for video conferencing and digital signage,” says Aubrey Wright, managing director of Handy AV. “Lync, BlueJeans, Vadio and Lifesize are examples of video conferencing as a service, and FusionDX, SignageLive and Scala are similar for digital signage.”

Aesthetes can even get art-as-a-service. “We take what was traditionally a high-ticket product (art) and provide access through a low-cost monthly subscription, working with hardware partners to give them access to our platform as a native app on their displays,” says Marc Billings, ceo of streaming art platform, Blackdove.

While the case for software- or content-only AVaaS is a strong one, hardware remains a stumbling block for many. As Wright points out: “The hardware costs of LED panels, touch screens and control systems would have to be absorbed up front by the integrator or manufacturer and recouped over time through monthly payments. The margins aren’t there for integrators or manufacturers to support this, and end users will quickly tire of still paying for technology they received years ago while they see newer, more exciting technology all around them. So I don’t think we’ll see a complete AVaaS offering for some time.”

Gabriel agrees that hardware is by nature capital intensive. “However, it is possible, by either setting up an appropriate financial structure or working with the right financial partners, to enable the offering of complete AV solutions as a service,” he believes.

NanoLumens is currently fine-tuning an AVaaS offering which it calls visualisation-as-a-service (VaaS). Hardware, in the form of LED displays, is an essential part of this, says Lloyd, although it also includes display management software. “VaaS includes the upgrades that we provide as our tech advances, and these are primarily hardware based. AV evolves incredibly fast and the tech is usually pretty expensive and complex. By selling it as a service manufacturers can make their products more accessible, and customers can more easily afford state-of-the-art AV solutions without the risk of obsolescence.”

Other hardware, such as the Microsoft Surface Hub, is already available as a leasing option, says Couzins. “Integrators are encouraged to add their service wraps, including installation and ongoing support and maintenance. By hiring Surface Hub on subscription companies break with the buy-replace-buy-replace cycle and remove the need for large, upfront capital expenditure.”

Meeting rooms as a service

A number of companies, including AVMI, Maverick and Polycom, are now offering complete meeting room or VC solutions as-a-service.

“We’re offering ‘Cisco Project Workplace’ rooms and ‘Skype Room Systems’ at a monthly cost, including hardware, AV components and AVMI helpdesk support and warranty,” says Couzins.

“Our TD Optimise enables integrators to provide a quote with a bundle price which can include major investments, cables, connectivity, displays, service, maintenance and training all in one monthly price,” says Joel Chimoindes, European commercial director at Maverick AV Solutions. “We launched it in the UK and now we’re rolling it out across Europe.”

“We look at AVaaS more as device-as-a-service (DaaS),” says Andrew Hug, area sales vice president of systems engineers at Polycom. “DaaS from a VC perspective includes the complete system (screens, codecs, furniture), plus connectivity services, network and collaboration services. The Nordics market strongly favours the DaaS model and has been an early adopter.”

As well as the regular benefits of SaaS – such as scalability, predictable costs, improvements in productivity and engagement, a defined future roadmap, and the mitigation of the risks associated with ownership – AVaaS provides enterprises with a way of better managing AV services that would otherwise remain out on a limb, barely integrated with their existing business processes, according to Andreou.

Gabriel maintains that AVaaS usually leads to a lower total cost of ownership and a much earlier break-even point. This, he believes, should encourage executives to invest in AV solutions that would be of real value to their business but might otherwise seem too expensive, especially when competing with other, apparently more deserving, capex projects.

For many integrators and vendors the main attractions of AVaaS include the steady revenue stream and maintaining an ongoing relationship with the customer. But for Lloyd the chief benefit is that it makes AV more accessible. “If more end-users are aware that they can afford and install lasting AV solutions without breaking the bank or becoming experts, they’ll do it.”

“AVaaS also allows integrators to specify a higher quality solution that fits the client’s needs, rather than offering a compromise to fit a capex budget,” adds Chimoindes.

Integrators will also benefit from economies of scale in provisioning and support, believes Andreou. “Centralisation of products in the cloud supports a far more flexible approach to new customers. In many cases rooms can be provisioned in the cloud and deployed instantly, meaning that ‘installation’ is a two-hour affair at most.”

Of course, reducing the customer’s up-front capital costs and long-term risk doesn’t mean that these simply go away: instead they are transferred to the supplier.

“Suppliers must find the right technology and financial partners and set up specialised internal financial models to ensure that everyone throughout the process – manufacturers, distributors, resellers and the end client – sees a positive return,” warns Gabriel.

Risks associated with SaaS

Providers also need to manage the risks associated with contract termination, scale-down and modification at short notice, since these are integral to the appeal of the as-a-service model, adds Andreou.

Finally, while AVaaS is shaping up to enjoy a healthy role in the AV industry, it’s not a panacea. Despite his enthusiasm, Andreou is realistic. “There’s a danger that the ‘X-as-a-service’ culture overrides common sense, and services are deployed that make no commercial sense to either party. Customers may find it costs far more than they think to outsource niche, boutique services, and companies with a culture of dependence on personal support at the desk or in the room will struggle to make the service work commercially.

“The sector is awash with new entrants and exciting promises. But the tide could easily turn, in the same way that it has with many X-as-a-service approaches, if the service levels, functionality, price or interface with end users aren’t there.”

Have your say

or a new account to join the discussion.