Focus On Digital Solutions Sharpens

Not only did the hubbub among vendors and solution providers center on digital convergence, but the exhibits also reflected a distinct multimedia hue. Flat-panel displays, media-focused PCs, wireless devices, portable computers, optical drives, audiovisual and graphics peripherals, multifunction printers and networking gear lined the booths in the Solution Pavilion. And the Smart Home exhibit--sponsored by XChange host CMP Media, the parent of CRN, in conjunction with various vendors--proved to be the talk of the show floor. The two-room mockup home drew a steady stream of visitors, who fiddled with the menagerie of connected devices, automated systems, audiovisual controls and other gadgetry in the dwelling's office and living room spaces (see story).

Home automation, in fact, took center stage at a discussion panel titled "The Smart Home," moderated by Frank Ohlhorst, senior technical editor for the CRN Test Center. Panelist Steve Iommi, Northeast sales manager at home systems vendor Home Automation Inc. (HAI), fielded a spate of questions from the audience about the home integration business, including how to get started in that market, which solutions are in greatest demand and how to deal with homeowners.

Other Smart Home panelists also sketched a picture of the "connected home" market.

Jason Owen, product manager at networking vendor Hawking Technologies, Irvine, Calif., explained how rising sales of wireless devices and the inception of the 802.11g Wi-Fi standard are driving home networking, while J. Erret Kroeter, director of partner programs at Poway, Calif.-based PC vendor Gateway, discussed how the home computer and entertainment center are merging as new, networking-capable multimedia hardware emerges. And Dan Schwab, vice president of marketing at distributor D&H Distributing, Harrisburg, Pa., described how the digital convergence trend is creating new opportunities for the channel in the home, SOHO and small-business spaces. In comments after the panel discussion, HAI's Iommi said IT solution providers' core competencies in integration--mixed with some additional vendor training in home automation technology--position them well for selling connected-home solutions.

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Earlier, Sony's keynote presentation had set the digital tone in kicking off XChange. Joseph Natale, vice president of distribution sales at Sony, and Greg Taylor, vice president of reseller sales at the vendor, gave an overview of how the company's array of computing, imaging, multimedia, storage and other products can be blended into digital solutions sold through the channel. Similarly, Pat Collins, group vice president of sales and marketing at Santa Ana, Calif.-based Ingram Micro, later noted in the distributor's own keynote that small and midsize businesses continue to account for a huge chunk of U.S. IT spending, and high-tech vendors can reach this lucrative customer base via solution providers. On stage with Collins was Angie Wong, owner of Network Designs Integration Services, who described how the Fremont, Calif.-based solution provider, has built up its SMB business by spinning off an IP video surveillance unit called Ojo Technologies.

Here's a roundup of other news and insights from XChange 2003:

• BenQ America unveiled an 8X-speed DVD recorder, the DW800A, which the vendor said is due to ship later this month and represents the fastest DVD writer now on the market. Charlene Wan, director of marketing at BenQ America, said the company also is working with BMW Design Works, a product design arm of auto maker BMW, to develop a slimline, ergonomically efficient line of computer keyboards and mice for office, Internet and multimedia applications. The new line is slated to be called the Profile Series, with products due to become available by the year's end, Wan said.

• Maxtor introduced a redesign of its one-button external backup drive for small businesseses and home users. The Maxtor OneTouch, available in capacities of 120 to 300 Gbytes, features a streamlined case design, integrated Dantz Retrospect Express backup software, Windows and Macintosh compatibility, and a system-restore function. Richard Jorgensen, director of strategic marketing at Maxtor, said solution providers will be particularly interested in the product's improved one-touch backup button, which can be customized to auto-launch other applications, such as antivirus and multimedia software.

• CTX is angling to be among the top five vendors in the U.S. 17-inch LCD display market, said President and CEO Jim Chen. To that end, the company plans to kick off a large-screen display push in the third and fourth quarters that will include the release of a 17-inch LCD monitor with a built-in Webcam and microphone for videoconferencing, a new 30-inch LCD-TV and a 46-inch plasma display. Chen said CTX currently stands at No. 7 in the 17-inch LCD space with just under a 4 percent market share, behind Samsung at the No. 1 spot, as well as ViewSonic, NEC-Mitsubishi, MAG/Proview, AOC and KDS.

• In early fall, AOpen plans to introduce the XC Cube, a compact, multimedia-focused white-box PC slated to be offered in six different colors and with AMD/Intel processor options, said Jack Chen, director of marketing and channel development at AOpen America. The company also aims to push a turnkey solution for Centrino-based custom notebooks that includes everything except the CPU, hard drive and memory. With such an offering, solution providers wouldn't have to risk stocking full-fledged notebooks and then have to sell them at a big discount later on if they can't move the units, Chen said. And running from September to December, AOpen plans to hold 50 regional road shows with custom system builders across North America to help build up its channel ranks and spread the word about new offerings, he said.

• Connect3D, a San Jose, Calif.-based provider of ATI-powered add-in video/graphics cards, is working to ramp up its U.S. channel presence among system builders, said company principal Marc Levaggi. He said he expects the growing demand for digital solutions and multimedia-intensive products to help spur interest in Connect3D's offerings.

• Imation is positioning data backup as a pillar of its small-business strategy, said Bob Herman, market development manager at the storage media vendor. Herman said the plan reflects the results of a national study that Imation released over the summer, which found that 39 percent of small businesses review their storage/backup procedures only after a problem occurs. Many small firms also don't test their backup systems to see if they actually work, and many don't store critical data off-site, he said.

• D-Link unveiled a line of turnkey hot-spot solutions for small businesses. Dubbed the Airspot DSA-3100, the gateway line provides firewall, DHCP server and router functions for public and private broadband access in a single device. Greg Avera, D-Link's vice president of channel sales, said the new product line--along with outdoor wireless solutions that the vendor introduced in early June--is designed to help D-Link amplify its presence in the SMB space and build on its success in the home market.

• The Home Technology Integrator (HTI ) certification course offered by CompTIA and the Internet Home Alliance gives IT solution providers a solid overview of what's involved in building and maintaining home networking/automation solutions, said Bob Purdy and Enrique Nieves, president and vice president, respectively, of Electronic Solutions International, a Daytona Beach, Fla.-based solution provider. The two digital entrepreneurs said they're now in the final stages of the HTI++course and expect the certification to help them land business.

• One stumbling block for IT specialists eyeing the home networking/automation market will be the issue of liability, said Ted Hunter, general manager of Champion Networks, a Brunswick, Maine-based solution provider. In areas such as security, where IP-based video surveillance is growing in popularity, big questions remain about the extent of solution provider responsibility and could discourage some from entering that business, he said.

• Apple is seeking out more VAR partners to help drive sales of its Xserve rackmount Unix server in the SMB market, said David Williams, East Coast VAR manager for Unix at the Cupertino, Calif.-based computer maker.

• Flat panels aren't the only display option for today's digital home-entertainment solutions. Phyllis McCullagh, vice president and general manager for the Americas at InFocus, said she's surprised that many consumers don't consider digital projectors for viewing movies, TV shows and other images. The big-screen LCD and plasma displays now catching homeowners' attention often cost much more and have less flexibility than a projector, which only requires a pull-down screen or a section of wall space, she said.