Last summer one of the biggest stories (non-stories) was the large, vacant booth from Microsoft at InfoComm. It was almost as if they planned to release a product, but it was not ready. By the time that ISE rolled around this winter, we had already heard of the Surface Hub, but this show was their real coming out party to the AV world. How the party went depends on who you ask.
rAVe’s founder Gary Kayye wrote a column that essentially asked whether this is really anything new. At least three other companies have similar products, likely cheaper prices and certainly better brand performance than Microsoft. I do agree with Gary on each of those points, but I look at the Surface as a truly unique product.
First, I think Microsoft has hit a chord with those of us in higher ed, who think about multi-touch screens. For starters, it is pretty rare to have a classroom where a multi-touch screen would be of any use. The situations that are advertised and written about never really occur. We have had a variety of touch screens and none have taken off. The main culprit is the software. Whether you are SMART, TouchIT technologies or Sharp, learning the software that goes along with these monitors is simply too much of a hassle. If a faculty member wants to write on a board, they don’t want to have to mess around with a computer to do it. They want to grab a pen and write. Despite their promises, I have yet to see a screen that just does it. In addition to the software, all of these screens are simply too small for higher education. Even at a small liberal arts college, most of our classrooms are too big for these monitors. Finally, the design of all these boards puts someone in the front of the room, passing down knowledge. From the classroom to the boardroom, we are moving away from this style of instruction to much more collaborative work.
This is where Microsoft is going to find the Surface Hub to be a huge hit. You should clearly note that they are including the word “Surface” in the name. If you read last month’s column you already know that I think the Surface 3 is a huge hit for Microsoft. The integration this product has with the Surface is beautiful. Built in MiraCast allows you to wirelessly connect any Surface (or any MiraCast device) with just a couple sweeps of the finger. Oh, speaking of sweeps, did you notice that all you have to do in order to power on the Surface Hub is wave at it? More about that later. So, back to collaboration. Now you put several people in a room, all with their Surfaces and they can annotate, share and display their work, seamlessly and in a much more collaborative mode than the “sage on the stage” mode.
What about simplicity? Not something Microsoft has been known for in the past. Yet, you can tell that simplicity was a key factor in their development of this product. It is all one unit, and for basic functions, only needs a power connection and a network connection. As I mentioned earlier, walk into the room and wave at the Surface Hub, and it turns on. A very simple screen asks you whether you want to Call, Whiteboard or Connect. The call function is Skype for Business. The built in cameras and microphones allow you to start your call with ease. The whiteboard function is powered by OneNote. Again, if you have not used OneNote, you really need to put it through its paces. A great piece of software that you will find powerful and useful immediately. The nice integration into the Surface Hub is a plus, but again leads to the “sage on the stage” mentality that I think we are moving away from. Perhaps it could be used as a whiteboard in small groups, and perhaps that is why Microsoft included the feature, but I don’t think it is a main selling point. The third feature, Connect is what allows you to wirelessly connect your device. This is the collaboration point, where multiple people in the room can share content. These three features are 95 percent of what our conference rooms provide. This is the first product I have ever seen that I would consider installing in a room, with no other technology (no dedicated computer, no touch panel, no auxiliary cameras). So, when you consider price, an important consideration will be all the “extras” you are not adding.
So, it appears that Microsoft has developed a product that is simple for the end user. What about for the integrator? This is where there is going to be pushback. I fear that many integrators are not going to be interested in the selling the product because they won’t see the markup, or the future revenue from it, like they would a full AV install. I think this is where IT companies are going to eat our lunch. They can sell these easily to the clients they already work with, and essentially sell it as a computing device that needs no integration with AV. If you are an AV/IT integration firm, then I highly recommend you look deeper into this product. The skills your company has will be able to make money from the initial sale of the product, to the integration into the servers at the business. The product gives you a great opportunity for current revenue and service contracts.
What are your thoughts? Would you install this as the only piece of technology in your conference rooms? How about as the technology in your active learning spaces? Or, has the blue screen of death scared you away for ever?