The Custom Installer: Look, Ma — No Wires

Every time a new technology emerges, it seems like pundits can't wait to declare everything that preceded it obsolete. A classic example is the U.S. Postal Service. How many times have you heard that faxes and e-mails are going to replace the good old mailman? But six days a week - through rain, sleet, snow, and dead of night - the mailman still completes his appointed rounds.

The home-entertainment industry is all atwitter over "convergence" - the melding of A/V systems and computers - and the latest buzzword is Wi-Fi. Admittedly, wireless connectivity is very cool, and many manufacturers and consumers are embracing it wholeheartedly. In fact, while writing this, I augmented my home network with a wireless router, and just knowing that I can get broadband access in my bathroom is somehow both comforting and disturbing. Going wireless can save hours of time and expense, and it opens opportunities for people who live in homes where a wired network is physically impossible or too expensive.

So as we evolve into a world without wires, will there still be a need for the custom installer?

In the short term, the answer is definitely, "yes!" Wi-Fi connectivity is certainly changing the landscape of A/V systems, and we'll undoubtedly see more Wi-Fi-capable audio networks like Yamaha's MusicCAST and Gibson's Wurlitzer Digital Jukebox. Or maybe the future will bring speakers with small digital amplifiers and Wi-Fi receptors built in. But for now nearly all home theater and multiroom audio systems rely on traditional, hard-wired connections.

And while Wi-Fi is great, transmission ranges can be limited in larger homes and in houses made of things like concrete and steel. In situations where signal dropout is intolerable, as with audio and video transmission, or where security is a concern, traditional wired systems currently offer the only answer. Even with systems that rely primarily on wireless transmission, it's a good idea to have a wired backup system to ensure full signal coverage.

But let's say that A/V technology does advance to the point where we can completely eliminate wires and that concerns over bandwidth, reliability of service, and hackers are all resolved. Other than a power cable, everything sits on a home network that sends data via radio waves. Will there be any need for the custom installer then?

The answer is still, "Yes!" Wireless technologies let DIYers incorporate amazing features into their systems, but wiring isn't the only service a custom installer provides. There'll always be a need for professionals who can handle the more labor-intensive aspects of settng up a system - like mounting plasma or LCD TVs, hanging video projectors, cutting in speakers, or programming advanced system controls and housewide keypad controllers.

And having our A/V systems more tightly intertwined with our computer systems will probably make networks less reliable. It'll be a sad day when the first component rolls off the assembly line with Ctrl/Alt/ Delete keys on the remote! As systems become more complex, the custom installer will be there to make sure everything works together. Whether that means ensuring that all the devices are recognized on the network or that lighting and automation systems are properly integrated with the entertainment and data components, or some yet-to-be-thought-of must-have, the installer will keep abreast of the latest trends.

Finally, there will always be people who need a professional to do the things other people do for themselves. To understand this, consider lawn care, which people tend to approach in one of three ways. In the first group are people like my dad. Whether out of love for a lawn that rivals Augusta National or because he's especially thrifty, you'll have to pry the leaf blower from his cold, dead hands. He would never hire a lawn-care service. The next group is made up of people who handle the weekly upkeep, but who turn to a professional for large projects like landscaping or irrigation. And then there are the people who want absolutely nothing to do with it. Mowing, weeding, trimming - you name it: whether they're too busy, hate dirt, or fear that they'll mess something up, they hire a pro to make sure the job is done right.

It's the same with electronics. There will always be hardcore DIYers who will never enlist the aid of an outsider. Then there are the people who will turn to a pro for large projects like wiring a new home or buying a new system, but who do small tasks like adding components and programming remotes themselves. Finally, there are the people who want nothing to do with connecting their systems. They're interested solely in the entertainment experience, not in what it takes to get there.

No matter how simple or complex new technologies become, there will always be a need for custom installers. And while the equipment and methods of installation will undoubtedly change, the level of service an installer provides won't.

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