Certified Confusing

by David Danto

There are a handful of topics in enterprise video communications that will always raise sensitivity and What is the value of platform certification?opinions.  One example is Interoperability – how one firm’s systems and platforms work with another firm’s systems and platforms. We’ve been arguing about that one for decades. Another example is BYOD/BYOM (Bring Your Own Device / Bring Your Own Meeting) vs. in-room codecs. If given the chance, the advocates of each model would argue its superiority all day long.

The controversial topic of today’s conversation is “certification.” What does it mean when hardware has been certified to work on a specific platform, and is it worth the cost to the manufacturer?

History

A long time ago, certification was a non-existent issue in a land (only seemingly) far, far away. If you bought a videoconferencing device from a manufacturer it usually worked. Each provider had its own standards. A VTEL machine could easily call another VTEL machine (plus or minus the ISDN connection of the day, of course.) When multiple hardware vendors blossomed in the space, standards were introduced. A VTEL machine could be called a Picture-Tel machine, but it would be at a standards-based connection speed inferior to staying within its own walled garden.

In today’s world of room videoconferencing, there is now usually a separation between the companies that provide the video calling platforms and the ones that build the hardware that is used for them. Of the four most used videoconference platforms (Zoom, MS Teams, Cisco Webex and Google Meet) only Cisco still manufactures stand-alone gear for their own platform. Zoom, Teams, and Google platforms support room-based video calls using components made by third-party manufacturers.

These components run the gamut from complete systems – including display, cameras, microphones, speakers, and hardware codec – to each as separate units for users to mix and match as they prefer. Maybe an end-user organization wants to source all of these from one vendor, or maybe they prefer a “best in breed” approach with different manufacturers represented.

                                                                       What are these certification labels worth?

What Does Certified Mean?

This multiple-vendor environment is where the certification discussion kicks in. If, for example, you purchase an HP|Poly Studio R30, that unit happens to be “certified” for MS Teams, Zoom, Google Meet, and a handful of others. HP guarantees it will work on your chosen platform. But if you purchase a Barco ClickShare videobar, it is not certified on any of those platforms (at least not yet.) Does that mean it won’t work?

Of course not.

There are multiple opinions about the value of certification to users.

The position of Microsoft and other platforms is that when a device is certified, it meets rigorous standards that they have set forth. It also means that it is compatible with any other certified device. (Are you using the components of a Logitech videoconference system on MS Teams but want to replace the USB camera with a Poly one? Microsoft guarantees they are interchangeable if they are both MS certified.)

However, many end-users believe the value of certification is negligible. If a USB camera captures video intended to work with a USB (Universal Serial Bus) connector, then it doesn’t matter what the companies involved may have negotiated for the use of a “certified by [xxxxx]” label on the box. The same goes for microphones, speakers, and all the rest of the components.

Clearly there are some situations where certification would have intrinsic value. If an end-user intends to perform software/firmware updates to their devices via the collaboration platform’s management scheme, then ensuring the platform has blessed the device is more important. At the very least, it also provides some confidence to the user that the next platform software update will not disable their device.

It also shows the manufacturer to be mature enough to submit their designs to a third party and commit to making any requested changes. Then there’s the benefit to manufacturers that certified products are listed on the platform’s website as approved for use. That is a strong incentive for manufacturers to follow the plan.

The Negatives

On the downside, certification also allows the platform to enforce its sometimes customer-unfriendly market positioning.

There is no technical reason in the world why all-in-one videoconferencing systems can’t instantly switch between native platforms like Zoom and Teams. This is a feature that nearly every user has asked for. The reasons preventing it (despite any BS the platforms may tell you) are solely go-to-market related. Microsoft doesn’t want it to be easy for an end user to switch to Zoom, and Zoom feels mostly the same way about allowing for easy switching to Teams. If a manufacturer were to enable that instant-switching feature in the current environment, they would lose their certification. Having to reboot to make the change is considered onerous enough by the platform to prevent customers from leaving.

In addition, one also has to assume that the often very dragged-out back-and-forth of the certification process carries both direct expenses charged by the platform and indirect expenses in the time and effort it takes to accomplish. Many users are not happy having to pay those increased costs built into a product’s pricing. Buying devices not certified by a platform but working just fine as peripherals often represents a cost savings to the manufacturer and, ultimately, the user.

What Should End-Users Do?

As with many debates in enterprise communications, if you feel strongly about one side of the argument, the other side seems silly.  People who embrace certification can’t imagine why others would reject it as a concept. People who loathe paying extra for a label that they feel only means a device manufacturer paid to be platform-blessed see the certification as irrelevant to the product performance. We’re talking oil and water here – the twain rarely meets.

So, should you buy only devices with a “natively certified for [xxxxx]” label? The answer to that question lies in your personal comfort factor in dealing with the hardware. If you have to use your own judgment about a device (instead of relying on the manufacturer’s recommendations), then you’d better possess the necessary technical knowledge to make such a judgment. You – or your designated designer or integrator – would have to know the camera or speaker or whatever will work now and in the future to take the risk of going outside of the certified recommendations.

If you’re not sure, then you’ve already answered the question.