Microsoft Has Figured Out What Sharp, InFocus, SMART Technologies and Clary Icon Already Knew

interactive1-0115Although SMART Technologies invented the interactive whiteboard market, and therefore indirectly invented the interactive display market, companies like InFocus — with Mondopad — and Clary Icon as well as Sharp have developed it into more of a mainstream product category in recent years.

So much so that Microsoft has now, well, copied it — but, have they even made it better?

Microsoft entered the large-screen interactive LCD panel market last week with the launch of what it’s calling the Surface Hub. And, the way the mainstream press is eating it up as if it’s an innovative, first-of-its-kind, well, interactive LCD panel, you’d have thought that Microsoft would have invented it.

They didn’t.

interactive2-0115Smart started back in the late ’80s making interactive products and by the end of the ’90s, they had a 92 percent market share in the electronic (or interactive) whiteboard market in schools, worldwide, and nearly an 80 percent market share in the corporate market for the fancy whiteboards. But, since then, we’ve seen LCD panels get bigger and cheaper and companies like Sharp and Clary Icon have taken chunks of the market and have helped re-invent the category. Then, in 2013, InFocus launched the Mondopad.

So, what is the Microsoft Surface Hub?

It’s an 84” multi-touch LCD — remember, Microsoft, a few years back, bought a company called Perceptive Pixel in 2012 — they were probably, at that time, most famous for providing CNN with their big multi-touch touchscreen during the 2008 and 2012 election seasons. Then, Fox News bought a plethora of them for Shepard Smith’s Fox News Deck set back in 2013. Well, last week, Microsoft said they’d used the Perceptive Pixel technology to launch a whole new series of Surface Hubs that range in sizes from 55” to 84” and includes the ability for two people to interactive (true multi-touch) with the screen simultaneously — both can use septa styluses at the same time, too. Additional features include wireless transmission and connectivity of laptops, tablets and phones, split-screen display of content (what we commonly refer to as BYOD or huddle-room wireless content sharing in the AV market) and it’s integrated with Skype for Business — so you can easily connect a videoconference.

Of course, being from Microsoft, it’s running the latest version of Windows — in this case, 10 — and it’s a 4K resolution display (3840×2160) — and includes two built-in HD cameras that can shoot the periphery of the room or a person/presenter and attendees simultaneously and it’s integrated with microphones and speakers. Basically, it’s an 84” AV system in a box with the ability to send content via HDMI, VGA, over the network or wirelessly.

interactive3-0115So, is this a big deal?

Yes.

Will it kill SMART, InFocus, Sharp and Clary Icon?

No. But, it will make them each go back and re-engineer their individual systems. All four of them are sure to show up at InfoComm with a better product than they have now. None of them have exactly what Microsoft has.

Then again, we don’t know what Microsoft is going to price it at — remember, it’s an 84”, professional, purpose-built 4K resolution display — not cheap. It won’t be $5,000 or $10,000. Think a lot higher — for now.

And, there’s a market for what everyone else has now.

Yes, 4K is nice — and makes sense for an 84” where you’re likely going to mostly replace projectors. And, Microsoft is rumored to be working on debuting a 100” by InfoComm — so bigger is better.

But, not every room needs an 84” and not every meeting needs 4K. Certainly where  a lot of the Sharp and Clary Icons are going — schools, don’t need that resolution right now.

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Sharp has an entire line of what they call the AQUOS BOARD displays from 60-80” displays and most of them can manage four people using them simultaneously. Certainly, they aren’t integrated with with Microsoft Windows on-board, but they’re specifically for electronic whiteboarding, displaying and sharing presentations, real-time annotating and collaboration — thus, 1080p native displays work well here. And, they aren’t $20,000 — the price that most think Microsoft will enter the market at. In fact the Sharp line ranges from $6,000 to $12,000.

mondopad-0115InFocus’s $6,000 – $12,000 Mondopad is probably most like the Microsoft product. Also available from 55” to 80”, the Mondopad has Microsoft Windows (version 7) and Office integrated right in the product and is already like a giant Microsoft Surface tablet — in fact, load Windows 10 on here and they’ve got 80 percent of what Microsoft is launching. Missing? Well, the Mondopad is 1080p, uses one camera for Skype and SIP calls (and since’s it’s H.323 it, too, can connect to Polycom and Cisco) and the user-interface is different. But, by InfoComm, this product will likely be very close to the same thing that Microsoft will show in their booth in June.

Clary Icon’s H1 product looks, aesthetically, a lot like the Microsoft Surface Hub, but it’s only available in 40”, 60” and 70” versions and is also priced in the $7,000 — $14,000 range. Also using Windows 7, the Clary Icon products use the Hitachi StarBoard panels and includes videoconferencing (and not just Skype — they can do Polycom and Cisco, too) and they can do wireless collaboration, claryicon-0115too. But, their camera is separate, their resolution is, too, only 2K or HD and their software-interface isn’t as slick as Microsoft’s — ironic to even write that when Microsoft and “sick interface” haven’t likely been put together by too many tech journalists in years — given the blue-screen-of-death phenomenon.

Then, there’s SMART. SMART is the company that will likely be able to copy the Microsoft product the closest when they launch, yet another, 4K version (their first debuted in late-2013, actually). They’re already Microsoft Lync — as most of these products are – and they have one of the most familiar user-interfaces of all the interactive LCDs on the market. Everyone else looked at theirs first at some point in development. In fact, SMART’s current 84”, when integrated with the Meeting Pro software, looks — spec for spec — nearly identical to the Microsoft product. And, SMART already sells it through AV integration.

And, unless Microsoft somehow limits the Windows 10 compatibility for any of these manufacturers, look to see them all add 4K versions of their interactive LCD’s by the end of 2015.

But, price will be a factor. If Microsoft chooses to come in and steal the market at $15,000 or even $10,000, that could present a problem for everyone — unless they can match the resolution.

One thing they will all have going for them that, ironically, Microsoft has working against them — Sharp, InFocus, Clary Icon and SMART all have better brand performance reputations than Microsoft does in the world of AV Now, Windows 10 is, by all accounts, the company’s best-ever operating system and lens itself well to a giant Surface Tablet like the HUB. But, It’s still Microsoft and that will either be a blessing or a curse — from a marketing standpoint — for themselves.

Either way, we’ll know rather soon as the Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) show kicks-off in two weeks and Microsoft will be there and will certainly show all their AV wares at InfoComm in June in Orlando.

All the Surface Hub details are here.