In September Microsoft is slated to ship its new Surface Hub and, after digging into it a bit, it appears to me that this could well be the future of conference room communications, especially for enterprise customers but perhaps even small and medium-size businesses.
The Surface Hub is essentially an oversized Surface tablet that is intended to hang on the wall, like a big-screen TV. It has all kinds of communications and productivity tools built in, including Skype for Business (formerly Lync), OneNote whiteboard, Microsoft Office, touch and ink handwriting. It also has dual 1080p cameras to support videoconferencing via Skype for Business.
You can use the Surface Hub in a conference room to support rich, multimedia videoconferences with far-away employees or simply with those in the room. Use the whiteboard function to brainstorm ideas, scribble drawings – even two can scribble at the same time – and then save it all in OneNote to share at will.
Surface Hub Pricing – Not Cheap, but Potentially Worth It
Surface Hub is not cheap, by any means. The 84-inch version will cost $19,999 while the 55-inch version is $6,999. While $20k for an oversized tablet may sound high, given all that you get with it, it’s not outrageous by any means. As arstechnica.com puts it:
This makes them quite a bit more expensive than Microsoft's other hardware. However, Redmond reckons that compared to what a company would normally spend to fit out a conference room with video communications, electronic whiteboarding, and a projector, the price is very competitive. For an 8- to 12-person conference room, Microsoft claims that companies will typically spend $38,000 to $54,000 to achieve a similar range of functions to those provided by Surface Hub.
Yes, they do spend that kind of money for a room-based system, and sometimes more – a lot more. A high-end Cisco Telepresence system, with three 70-inch screens, goes for nearly $300,000 at list price. And Polycom has a high-end model that goes for well over $400,000.
Surface Hub Combines Ease of Use, Advanced Functions
Those systems no-doubt provide top-quality video, and the Cisco version integrates with its WebEx online collaboration tools. But it sounds like the Surface Hub will be easier to use than traditional room-based systems, with plenty of advanced functions.
“Start meetings on time with a tap of the screen,” the Surface Hub web site says. “End your session with an option to save and send meeting content to the group for later use.” You can schedule meetings in advance or invite remote attendees on an ad-hoc basis, just as you would using Skype for Business. “Everyone can see content and contribute equally no matter where they are. Clear sound and high-quality video make meetings great,” the site says.
Granted, it’s easy to make such claims on a Web site. But we know the Microsoft collaboration tools already work well on its Surface tablet, and the Surface Hub is at heart just a larger version of the tablet. So it all makes sense to me.
Whither Apple in the Big Tablet Game?
While we’re talking big tablets, rumors have been swirling for quite some time that Apple is at work on an oversized version of its iPad. Just not “quite as big” as the Surface Hub.
Based on upgrades coming in the iOS 9 operating system, some suspect that larger iPad could be coming soon. As Quartz reports, those iOS upgrades include:
A new split-screen mode to quickly open a second app in the right column and then slide it away. For example, you could quickly slide the Twitter app into view while you’re reading a website.
A second, more powerful split-screen mode to fully use two apps at a time, side-by-side. For example, you could simultaneously browse a map while making a to-do list for the day.
A picture-in-picture mode that lets a video float over the rest of what you’re doing on the iPad, with adjustable size and positioning.
A new set of keyboard features. These include the ability to swipe over the keyboard with two fingers to simulate a trackpad, which is designed to simplify moving around a document and selecting text.
As the Quartz story points out, those sorts of features make a lot more sense on a larger screen – they’re positing something along the lines of 13 inches, up from the existing 9.7 inches. Such a device would help Apple tap more business use cases, the story says.
Whether one of those use cases is a far larger iPad for use in room-based collaboration applications remains to be seen. Frankly, I don’t see it. Apple doesn’t have the enterprise collaboration chops it needs to justify the kind of price tag such a device would have to command.