Smart phones and the security industry

Nov. 23, 2009

Mobile devices matter to our industry more than ever. We see it in the number of camera viewer applications and alarm system control applications that are becoming available on today's smartphones. It's been said by industry leaders like Honeywell's President Ron Rothman, who told First Alert dealers that the consumer is driving control to mobile devices (see more of SD&I's report on last week's First Alert conference).

So, what's happening with mobile devices? Who's winning the battle?

Clearly at this point, it's a two-player market. There is Apple with the iPhone and RIM (a Canadian company) with the Blackberry. Each has roughly 1/5th of the world market of smartphones (17.1 percent for Apple's iPhone, 20.8 percent for Blackberry according to Wired Magazine). Microsoft, the early dominant player, has seen a drop in market share, from 11 percent in 2008 to around 7 percent, despite the fact that Microsoft had the early operating system platform. I don't see this Microsoft trend turning around, to be honest.

Google is the new up-start in the mobile devices space with its Android operating system, and if Google's other successes in Gmail, GoogleMaps, the search engine, and Reader are any indication, this company will become a real factor in the business of cell phones. Don't forget Palm (as in the old PalmPilot, an early player in the smartphone market), which seems to generate conflicting market share reports. IDC put them as rising to 13.4 percent of marketshare, but other reports say the company has steadily lost market share for 2 years and is now down to roughly the same level of Microsoft's OS. One thing is for sure: Google is small but getting the buzz; Palm is reinventing itself but still not getting consumers' attention the way the company did in prior years.

So now the question becomes a matter of how do smart phones affect the security industry. Here's my read on the situation:

Consumers are going to turn to smart phones like never before. I think the culmination of some really easy to use phones (even RIM's clumsy old Blackberry interface has taken a cue from Apple and is easy to use), along with a general desire to be connected all the time, has pushed consumers into this frenzy of smart phone technology adoption. The steady increase in usage of smart phones by consumers is going to mean rapid advances in use of remote connections to home security systems, business security systems and home/building automation solutions.

Video to the phone is going to explode, especially as the 3G networks roll out and the 4G networks follow suit. Video, however, isn't going to be used in a stream-it-all-the-time manner. Rather, video usage is going to be based on alerts and will be accessed as clips. There will likely be the option for streamed, real-time video for some commercial and residential systems, but not many will pay for or use that feature. Vendors' pricing structures are going to match video usage and will be tiered or will be Pay-as-you-go.

For the integrator, this is going to be enormous. With the advent of GPS in the phones owners could know where their techs are, they could get instant project status updates (which can be fed back to the customer), on-site staff can access technical documents, they can instantly message other technicians to get tips on new technologies. And unlike the guard services industry, this area of adoption could really take off because there is a tangible return-on-investment for the integration business operator who has the staff using smartphone technology to the fullest. Other places where smart phones are a win for integrators: taking photos of the job for the customer's information archive, being able to remotely connect to security systems for programming, using the smart phone to check camera placement/focus, and using the phone to track billable hours. There really is a great deal of potential here.

For corporate security, the existing benefits are more managerial than function, and already today, most corporate security directors are carrying a smart phone, so it's more about maximizing usage rather than adoption. For corporate security leadership, it's all about the alerts, and I can see the smart phone becoming a command center away from the command center. Based on alerts, corporate security management can find out what responses have been initiated and they can access their response protocols (saved on the phone or in the cloud). They can get system status reports; some may want an alert whenever the alarm system goes off, others may only want an alert when it's confirmed that it was indeed a real alarm. Corporate security leaders will adopt the use of video feeds to the phones, and they will become a communications point of being able to move the relevant information of a situation to the most applicable team member or group of employees. They will look at the company's smart phone usage as a whole, and they will consider ideas like like having remote store employees use smart phones to engage alarm systems. They will look at the company's overall adoption rates of smart phones and other mobile devices and consider how that could aid them in emergency situations or in the deployment of mass notification solutions. Phones that stream video both ways (up and down) will allow corporate security managers to put mobile surveillance cameras in the palms of employees' hands. The challenge for the corporate security manager is going to be about creating great ideas for tapping these smart phone and mobile technologies.

The manned guard services business is going to be the adoption laggard. Despite some really forward thinking technology developers and contract guard companies that are ready to train their security officers on how to use smart phones, in the end it will be the greenbacks that limit this switch. For most companies which hire guards, the push is to keep costs so low that there is no money left for smart phone technology for security officers. Yeah, it could be a huge benefit, because real-time patrol incident reports could be filed on the phone; video could be accessed by officers in the field; security systems (access and intrusion) could be controlled by one smart device; and digital reports and field notes could be shared between officers. But until there is more money spent in this side of the industry, I'm not holding my breath (and, yes, I know there are companies that are doing this, but the adoption is much slower than we all thought it would be). In a business where the lowest bidder still rules, smart phones are pricey equipment with pricey service plans. Companies that balk about $.25/hour raises for a guard aren't usually the same companies that invest heavily in business performance technologies.

In the world of product manufacturers, I'll keep it brief. They will continue to develop loads of applications and smart phone accessible tools for the systems. Some solutions will stick, others won't, but they'll continue to crank them out as fast as they can and as soon as they have those new ideas.