Sector Analysis: Visual communication



As simple as black and white


Growth in the European educational sector is displaying that interactive whiteboards have a bright future


The OPI offices are comfortably seated close to many of the industry’s biggest office furniture suppliers. In fact while taking a short cut through one of the many side streets enroute to an early morning launch at Steelcase’s offices you could see some of the most innovative bespoke designs the industry has to offer. However today’s launch isn’t about a new ergonomically refined chair, it’s not even about Steelcase, it’s about interactive displays from one of its partners.


The gathered hacks are treated to a dizzying demo of a system that allows state-of-the-art global interaction between disparate arms of multinational companies. We’re then told that the imagineers of Disney use it to create its latest entertainment fixes across the globe before being shown how a user can stand looking over technical information and with a wave of a hand send it across to the other side of the planet. Truly it’s like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Minority Report have converged.


Such technical sophistication is unimaginable outside of a multinational environment but, according to a recent report from analyst Futuresource Consulting, simpler interactive whiteboards are set to positively thrive in coming years in the education sector.


The news is a boon for manufacturers that have seen sales peak in 2005 before sliding onto a downward slope. The report suggests that Europe will become a major driver for future growth. In fact, it predicts that interactive whiteboard sales across the EMEA will rise by 70 percent in 2010, despite the onging economic slump.


It’s a surprising prediction perhaps given that traditional whiteboard sales have also held up well during the recession, but looking ahead the costlier interactive versions will be boosted by a surge in education spending says Futuresource.


The analyst says that sales of interactive whiteboards within the EMEA (excluding the UK, where sales are running at a healthy but even 50,000 units a year) are predicted to reach 360,000 units in 2010 this year (following 2009 which saw a 72 percent increase on 2008).


While the recession has depressed most sectors, the market for interactive whiteboards looks healthier as adoption in the education sector across Europe has been on the low-side up to this point.


Futuresource is predicting that the continent will replicate the UK and US, where governments have provided financial encouragement for educational authorities to invest in new technology. There is a perception that those two countries now have a technological advantage that needs to be emulated if Europe is not to fall further behind.


The gap is considerable. In the UK, for example, 72 percent of 626,000 classrooms are now equipped with some sort of interactive whiteboard. In the EMEA that ratio falls to 9 percent of the 8.8 million classrooms.


Bad news for the UK


The bad news for suppliers in the UK market is that that’s as good as it’s going to get for the time being, as the interactive whiteboard market will now remain flat in volume, according to Futuresource, until 2012 (that figure could even be revised downwards with the new UK government expected to curtail spending across the public sector).


Other countries currently behind the UK in the EMEA but with high installation bases of 20 percent or more include Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and the UAE. Another 12 countries have installed bases of 5-20 percent, while 17 other territories are yet to hit the 4 percent mark.


"When we started carrying out these surveys, the UK was responsible for 80 percent of interactive whiteboard sales in EMEA," Futuresource consultant Colin Messenger told AV magazine. "Now the roles have been reversed."


Every country is different, but there is across-the-board awareness and momentum, says Messenger. He also suggests that other opportunities will [ahem] present themselves.


"At the moment, most of the sales are of interactive whiteboards, because that’s the traditional starting point and it is early days for most of the countries concerned. But all the main vendors now sell a range of interactive products, so the buyers will soon start to look at things such as interactive tablets and visualisers."


While the funding may not be on the same scale as the investment made in the UK in the past decade, Europe is already beginning to migrate to the new technology.


To that end, sector player Promethean has signed distribution deals with distributors Charmex in Spain, Esprinet in Italy and Maverick/Tech Data in France, Germany and Portugal. By choosing these markets, Promethean appears to have picked wisely.


In France, for instance, the government has recently allocated around N50 million purely for investing in interactive classroom technology (ICT) and its Ecole Numerique Rurale programme is designed to enable the adoption of ICT in more remote parts of the country. In its scale and budget, the Ecole Numerique Rurale programme shares many similarities with the UK’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) initiative which pumped money back into the struggling whiteboards and AV sectors.


In Spain, the Escuela 2.0 programme is intended to provide funding for the implementation of classroom technology, while around N10.6 billion has been allocated to improve schools in Germany as the government begins a programme to redesign classrooms and enhancing their functionality.


Elsewhere, the Portuguese Ministry of Education is also rebuilding and redeveloping 500 secondary schools. Throw in the fact that Italy and Malta are also committing to the implementation of interactive whiteboards, Futuresource could very well be bang on the money with its prediction of a continental boom.


However optimism must be tempered with prudence before distributors and suppliers start filling their warehouses with interactive products. All the EU members are currently under fiscal distress as they prop up the region’s economy and there are already signs of restraint in spending.


Hungary, for instance, was extremely interested in looking at interactive technology but has delayed its tender and it is not unreasonable to assume that there will be other delays in government spending as the recovery in Europe remains volatile. Some observers are also saying that some countries are bound to get bogged down with judicial challenges to tenders.


However the latent demand is so great that Futuresource is confident in its predictions.


"Nine countries are expected to sell more than 10,000 units this year,’ says Messenger. "If you add all the EMEA countries together then sales of 250,000 units per year are feasible."


Corporate sector


While the picture looks rosy for the educational sector, the corporate sector which makes up around 10 percent of the whiteboards market is still suffering.


In a reverse of the education sector, spending is sure to be even tighter in the next couple of years. Sales will remain light for the systems like the one demonstrated to OPI. In fact, Futuresource does see opportunities as lower tech combinations of whiteboards with video-conferencing prove a popular alternative in the corporate sector.


Futuresource is recommending that manufacturers and resellers need to promote the products as efficient, money-saving devices. While not exactly the stuff you would hear from an imagineer it should be sound advice in the months ahead.