IP camera pioneer Axis Communications’ co-founder Martin Gren talks about developing the world’s first IP camera, the nature of core IP camera performance, and the present and future of video surveillance technology. 

JA: Martin, you’ve been with Axis since 1984 – it must be highly rewarding to have been so successful – was there a point at which you realised the company was going to grow so fast and become so large? Does the business still give you moments of wonder, of pleasure?

MG: It certainly does, I still work with what I like the most, new technology ideas at Axis and meeting many people and partners in the industry around the world. I don’t want to do anything else. It is very rewarding as you say, to have been part of Axis' successful journey. We started as a small startup data communications company with a protocol converter that enabled the connection of PC printers to IBM mainframe networks. The company we are today has more than 2000 employees worldwide, is still driven to come up with new, innovative, smart solutions that meet user needs and fit our business model. We’ll expand our portfolio to keep achieving that.

JA: In what ways did Axis’ early development of networked printers set the stage for moving into IP security?

MG: Our focus was to make networks smarter, enabling more and more hardware to be connected simply and economically to IP networks. As a print server company at the time, with everyone talking about the dying mainframe, we knew we had to innovate to survive. This was the culture we built up in the company. Our first shift was to attach printers to networks, then we attached anything to the networks, including printers and networked based optical storage. We called this “Thinserver”, which is exactly like todays Internet of Things. 

This climate and framework 20 years ago led us to the first network camera, which after some years, we focused solely on. But 2 years ago we went back to our roots of attaching anything to the network, such as physical access control and our latest additions like the Network Horn Speaker and an IP-based video door station, which is sort of an intercom – again using the benefits of IoT technology. Our Thinserver technology is known around the world today as the Internet of Things (IoT). In the security industry nowadays, we call it Internet of Security Things (IoST) because that is what it is for our industry. 

JA: Do you remember the exact moment you decided that IP cameras were going to be something huge – a moment you decided to invest time, money and creative energy in a technology that at the time was entirely unproven?

MG: We received a lot of attention with our CD-ROM servers and printer servers early on. With our first network camera we really didn’t know the applications; we did it because we could. But quickly we realized there was an all-analogue industry waiting to go digital and we found opportunities in remote monitoring and what we called light surveillance. 

I had a deal with management: If we could sell more than 10,000 units of the original network camera, we would create an independent camera business unit. We did, and I got my camera business unit. Now was the time to make it professional, so we invested nearly all of the company’s earnings into making the first generation of our ARTPEC chip in order to reach 30 fps performance. You wouldn't believe what kind of attention our first network camera got with the visionaries of the time. A couple of years ago, Apple's Steve Wozniak got in touch. He still had his Axis network camera from back then.

JA: Could you tell us about the greatest challenge of developing the world’s first IP camera – was there anything that really stumped you?

MG: The initial problem was the fact we built the camera because we could, rather than having a business case. Initially our sales organization was confused. We had no clue about the security industry as we were an IT company. But we kept trying and the network camera revolutionized the industry, transforming video surveillance from analogue into digital. Equally important was our decision to retain our indirect sales model, revolutionizing the way the CCTV industry operates.

JA: From your perspective as a developer of IP cameras, what do you think are the most important underlying aspects of camera performance? What characteristics of a camera’s engineering really define its potential to offer more useable image quality?

MG: It is not very difficult today to put components with great sounding specs together in a casing and sell it as a network camera. The fine art lies in optimally integrating these components so they can truly live up to their high specs. A good network camera is not the sum of its components' specs but a reflection of how well the camera manufacturer has integrated the different components and what software logic guides the components. 

While image quality is a core consideration, the real challenge is to optimize image quality for the surveillance task at hand, no matter how bad the light or what the ambient conditions are. In addition, you need to make it reliable, both from a network point of view as well to withstand challenging physical conditions.

JA: You’ve always been big in research and development. Has that long-term focus contributed to the company’s success?

MG: Indeed, it has. The research and development focus and our indirect sales model are core to our success. This allows our experts to focus on developing innovative products that meet end customers’ needs, while our partners can provide an extra layer of dedicated customer support. Research and development is a core aspect of our DNA at Axis Communications. We have over 800 engineers in our R&D department in Lund, Sweden.

Axis Communications is a key industry driver having introduced not only the market's first network camera, but also the market's first PTZ camera, first HDTV network camera and first thermal network camera. We have great people that are ready to push the envelope as we embark on the IoT age – we are introducing a lot of Internet of Security Things products!

JA: Canon acquired Axis Communications earlier in the year and from what I understand Canon is quite hands-off as a parent company. You are still doing all your own R&D and steering the business in the same way you always have done. Is this true and will it continue?

MG: Yes, we are and yes, this will continue. Canon really understood our culture and the importance of our business model. With Canon, we get access to a lot of technologies and know-how and as a Japanese company they think long term. This is something that really won me over.

JA: For many installers and integrators, price is a big issue – they might quote an end user quality product and find the end user takes a cheaper quote from another company using lower quality equipment. Is this something that you think about as a company?

MG: Total cost of ownership is something a lot of people forget about when it comes to initial investments in video surveillance. Quickly though, reality is catching up with component failures, high maintenance costs or important details missed due to poor quality images. We are not in this market to win a price war but to provide our partners and customers with quality products and extensive long-term support.

Public spenders especially, tend to only be able to make investments in waves. A city-run public transport company for example may have a lot of analogue video surveillance. They will usually upgrade in stages using video encoders to bridge old and new. They have a long-term view on such a retrofit and can't gamble with crucial variables such as TCO.

JA: Is there a particular capability you’d like Axis cameras to have right now?

MG: This year we have introduced our Zipstream technology. As cameras get higher and higher resolution and retention times are increasing, so is the cost of storage. By utilizing Zipstream, you can save up to 80 per cent bandwidth without losing image quality. Best of all, it is directly compatible with existing VMS systems, PCs and graphics cards as it based upon the current H.264 standard.

JA: Where is Axis right now in terms of developing new IP camera technologies? What’s just around the corner? Do you think the combination of Zipstream and 4K is a potential game changer for the surveillance market?

MG: Yes, 4K has already found applications and actually the take up could be quicker in video surveillance than in our homes. In addition, we have created multi-imaging cameras of even higher resolution which I think is a trend setter. With resolutions as high as 4K, compression technology becomes even more important and Zipstream is a natural ingredient.

JA: Do you think 4K cameras can get over the issue of low light performance? How long is this likely to take? 

MG: We already see deployments of 4K today in high security environments such as central banks, as well as shopping malls. Low light is certainly an issue, but in verticals such as central banks or retail you usually have enough light anyway, hence this is not a challenge.

JA: Looking at the market today, what do you see as the biggest threats to the traditional electronic security business? DIY, commoditisation, economic uncertainty, lack of staff training, poor network infrastructure in some parts of the world (like Australia), stagnation of technological development, other?

MG: We see a continued increase in making our societies safer and more secure – this is the key driver. As network cameras are typically operated locally, there is not a need for internet infrastructure unless you really intend to use it remotely. Instead, the issue is in understanding how to use cameras, where to place them and to have a good final integrated solution.

JA: And what are the biggest opportunities? Public surveillance, lateral cloud-based applications for the monitoring of everything?  

MG: There are opportunities everywhere! In Australia I have noticed airports are big users of our products, but I also know we are large in retail. Cloud-based security is still taking a lot of time to become a reality although we have seen it picking up quicker in markets such as Scandinavia and USA. But with edge storage technology this can happen everywhere.♦

John Adams with Martin Gren