Linksys puts its cameras in the ring

When Linksys announced new IP video surveillance cameras in December, they did so without much fanfare. The cameras were both fixed models, with one being wired only, and one that offers encrypted wireless data communications. There was no widespread PR/marketing blitz like what we saw when Cisco (Linksys' parent company) entered into the security industry with acquisitions of SyPixx and Broadware. Compared to Cisco's bold entrance, this Linksys product news was just another company with a couple of new products.

Or was it?

The initial reaction from many in the industry was indifference. Linksys had been aimed at the small business or homeowner do-it-yourself networking market, and it was perceived that these cameras would fit into that same DIY market. Admittedly, it was a preconceived notion that I shared as well, and admittedly it was wrong.

To be fair, Linksys had previously offered some cameras that were indeed aimed at the DIY market for small businesses and homes, but that's not the direction that the company is taking today.

To get to the bottom of this, shortly before the holidays I got on the phone with Ivor Diedricks, product manager of Linksys' Connected Office Business Organization unit. Diedricks has been overseeing the product roll-out. Here's what's changing as Linksys aims at the security products market and starts to become the kind of company to which security dealers should pay attention:

Going for the channel

Diedricks agrees that Linksys was "consumer focused" in prior years, but he says that with time, the company has grown into a company that sells to DIYers as well as through the channel. He says the company already works with some 7,000 VAR (value added reseller) companies, and that the company has increasingly developed products to be sold through this VAR channel. It's a channel that overlaps with what our industry calls "security dealers" and "systems integrators."

"We're also beginning to approach the traditional security channel," said Diedricks, who says the company's products are already at traditional VAR distributors like CDW.

Focusing on the market

The old cameras might have been great for home-based DIYers, and the new cameras may be good for small businesses, but even these new cameras aren't aimed at infrastructure type protection. So Linksys is sticking with their niche in the small business marketplace, says Diedricks. That means product form follows the sales opportunity.

"Customer profiles differ from segment to segment [inside of the parent company of Cisco]," explained Diedricks. "Our customers are very price sensitive, and simplicity is also very important to small businesses."

Building a better camera

The previous camera designs from Linksys were residential-quality and it wouldn't have been entirely unfair to call them glorified web cams. Those cameras typically offered only one selectable codec output (motion JPEG or MPEG4). These new cameras can do 30 frames per second with both codecs (MJPEG and MPEG4) running simultaneously. The new cameras also now have inputs/outputs so the cameras can be connected to PIRs, smoke detectors and other types of sensors. There's automated motion detection and even the ability to send out an instant message if motion is detected.

The cameras are box cameras, allowing them to fit into common enclosures (previous models didn't fit standard enclosures our industry uses). The cameras support the Pelco D protocols, and can be mounted in common Pan/Tilt enclosures. Lenses are removable, allowing custom configurations for varied camera positioning. POE (power over ethernet) is standard, as is audio.

Those changes bring the Linksys cameras in line with common offerings of professional grade surveillance cameras, stepping even beyond the Linksys D-link camera offering of 2006, which fit as a bridge between a professional-grade camera and a DIY camera.

Pursuing other solutions

Diedricks hints that the company is not done yet in the physical security space; in fact, it sounds like they're just getting started.

"In the future, we will expand to other form factors, including domes," he said. He also mentioned future changes like optical zoom capabilities (digital zoom is currently available) and network Quality of Service options.

The company, it seems, is also working on Network Attached Storage (NAS) solutions aimed at storing surveillance video, and by packaging switches and NAS, Linksys can offer the full IP video solution that a small business would need.

Diedricks is also considering H.264 as a potential codec for the future of Linksys' offerings.

"A camera that could stream H.264, MPEG4 and MJPEG would be ideal, but you can't do that cost effectively," he said. "The increased processing power means increasing costs."

Giving them the software

Like many camera firms, they offer a bundled software package that can be used by end-users to support and manage up to 16 cameras. It's not on the level of products from companies like Milestone, OnSSI or Genetec, but then again, it's free software designed around the small business user who can self-manage a system.

Staying unique from Cisco (and still working with them)

"We go after different parts of the market than Cisco," said Diedricks. "They're focused on large-scale enterprise environments; they have the tools to allow you to scale into hundreds and hundreds of cameras and applications."

Nonetheless, businesses do grow and security needs can change. Linksys and Cisco have traditionally offered a "trade-up" program, where they can swap over to Cisco-brand components and get trade-up dollars when turning in the Linksys equipment.

Still one hurdle left...

It may seem like it is all roses over at Linksys as they go after the small business market with professional cameras installed by the channel. But there's one problem. The VAR market hasn't traditionally installed surveillance cameras, and there's a lot to learn about camera placement and how things like backlighting affect images.

"There is definitely going to be a learning curve," admitted Diedricks, "but the VARS that are proficient in networking tend to be people who are very open to learning new things, but even with that openness, the learning curve will be there."

"We are marketing to the VARs, but we are also evaluating the traditional CCTV/security channel. They know the lighting and the lenses, but they generally don't have the background in networking that VARs have."

If Linksys can bring the VARs up to speed on physical security installations (proper mounting, lighting, etc.), or if they can get the traditional security dealers up to snuff on deploying networks, then they potential have a winner of a product line. This challenge of IT training for physical security dealers or physical security training for IT VARs is not a new problem by any means, and IP video companies like Axis, Panasonic, Sony and others have already been hard at work at this very problem.

One potential hope is that as the installer market evolves, new workers who grew up on routers and networks will enter the ranks of security technicians, bringing the IT and physical knowledge needed to make IP video happen across the board. It might just be a hurdle that vanishes on its own.