IP video: Where's the tipping point?

Analog still fits some, so where it ends is in the user's hands

For more than a decade, anyone who was anyone predicted it was coming: exponential growth in IP video. Old analog companies were either rotting by the wayside or acquiring the new technology to stay alive. But even after the large acquired the small, it still took time to adapt to the 'new way.' They said analog/IP sales would be 50/50 by 2005; then it was 2006, 2007, 2008. Each delay was accompanied by an array of plausible excuses from the very people who claimed with overwhelming confidence that it was coming. Among the reasons stated: a weak economy, smarter DVRs rising to meet the challenge, hybrid recorders, high-quality encoders, incredibly reliable analog cameras, a decline in new sites, integrators slow to learn the necessary skills and over-selling by manufacturers. Early adopters found that bleeding-edge IP technology was not without a downside, often needing such frequent patch updates that an installation would turn into a series of upgrades. Integrators complained of overly complex technology and low margins from countless maintenance and site visits.

The reality is that different markets adopt new technology at different rates for any number of reasons. The same is true for video surveillance technology. In the last few years, I've not encountered any casinos replacing older DVRs with newer DVRs, nor airports. When they upgrade their video surveillance, they are usually opting for IP video instead. The transportation market, too, has embraced encoders instead of DVRs and occasional IP cameras for new sites and forklift upgrades. Utilities, education and a whole swathe of military and civilian government entities are all moving quickly to encoders and IP cameras.

But why are some others voting for no change? A big chunk of the market has reached the conclusion, at least for the time being, that analog cameras (coupled with a DVR and a PC running some free viewing software) is good enough for them. It's relatively inexpensive (compared to pure IP video) and it's mature technology which means it's reliable, compatible, easy to install and requires fewer repair visits. DVRs also offer features normally associated only with high-end systems, such as H.264 compression and field-replaceable RAID storage. Customers may not achieve the video quality equivalent of HD/megapixel, but they get video quality, retention and reliability that are simply put, "good enough." Moreover, for integrators and installers, DVR systems are easy to quote and project success is almost always predictable. But there is a downside. Competition is ruthless, including do-it-yourself all-in-a-box systems from the local big box or other Home Depot and even from Amazon.com.

Hard to predict who wants what

On the other hand, IP video advocates would argue that HD and megapixel IP cameras take video quality to a new level, blowing past the NTSC limitations. This is true, and I am always surprised by the number of DVR installations that elect to economize on storage and bandwidth at the expense of video quality. I have seen this in installations where I would have least expected it.

Still, different market segments place a fundamentally different value on their video and what they expect out of it. To illustrate, consider these two very different types of customers.

At one extreme is the small installation, with a DVR gathering dust. It hasn't been touched in months, possibly years. The system's video quality is about the equivalent of a time multiplexed VHS tape-a handful of frames per second at CIF resolution. Even if the DVR failed, it would probably go unnoticed. You can well imagine that extolling the virtues of conventional IP video to such a customer would likely fall on deaf ears.

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