A Visit with Microsoft

When we think conference room and collaboration technology, we too often think of audiovisual collaboration technology, and when we think about that we think of a small set of traditional AV manufacturers, largely unknown to those outside of the industry. We think of control system manufacturers such as Extron and Crestron, of Vaddio and its PTZ camera technology. Of QSC and Biamp and Shure, perhaps Revolabs (now Yamaha).

We think of what we do.

Today I spent the morning with what might not be the biggest vendor of conference room tech, but one of the largest tech vendors with a foothold in the conference room. Today, along with my team, I visited Microsoft for a discussion of its Surface Hub. That discussion ended up being less about the hardware and more about the things of which I’ve been speaking for years now: about culture, about workflow and about ecosystems.

Even if it Isn’t About the Hardware – It’s About the Hardware

I can’t help it; I’m a technologist. I love hardware, especially well-made and carefully thought-out hardware. Hardware with solid build quality, hardware that’s easy to integrate. Hardware that does what it should do.

As I said last month, software runs on hardware.

You all know the specs of the Surface Hub by now. Either a 55″ HD display or 84″ 4K. Dual 1920×1080 cameras. Four microphones. Integrated PC running Microsoft Windows 10 Team (NOT the Windows 10 you know and love from your desktop, but a close cousin). Seeing it in person confirms what anyone who’d seen the Surface tablet would guess: Microsoft makes nice, solid-feeling hardware. In fact, our friendly Microsoft rep demonstrated just how solid by repeatedly punching it with a closed fist. Thankfully, the gorilla glass-clad screen neither fell off of the wall nor shattered.

That glass is part of a very nice capacitive-touch display with as many points of multi-touch as one could possibly want. Writing is very smooth and comfortable; note how clearly differences in pen-texture translate as my colleagues and I signed-in on the device.

You can clearly see the difference between my fellow systems designer, myself and an account executive whose handwriting is expected to be actually legible. This is much better than the experience one gets from an optical touch-overlay, which will register touches but not tell how hard one is pressing.

So yes, the hardware is quite good.

But, as I said, it isn’t really about the hardware.

Teams, Office 365 and the Same Conversation

One thing to note is that the Hub is NOT a Windows 10 device; it runs a custom version of Windows 10 called Windows 10 Teams that’s designed for the type of environment and workflow in which the Hub is expected to work. The most interesting facet of this is how it handles login management; the Surface Hub itself will have its own non-password protected account for whiteboarding and local presentations. One can walk up to it, draw one of the capacitive-touch pens from its holster on either side of the device and start whiteboarding. One touch can lead you to the Skype application where you would join a meeting under the Hub’s account. Or one can sign in with ones own Microsoft account, either from the home screen or the Skype meeting page. The team at Microsoft sketched some quick “home page” splash screens with arrows and instructions for the various choices.

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Why is this interesting? The biggest reason is that it solves the “guest access” problem; a third-party presenter can use the device without having to be given a login which might compromise security. Better yet, they can access their own calendar and contacts via a sign-in to Microsoft Live. On sign-out all of the session data is deleted, adding another layer of security and protection.

This is part of the conversation about workflow, the other part being tight integration with Microsoft applications, especially the new “Teams” collaborative tool. For those who don’t know, Teams is Microsoft’s answer to Slack or Cisco’s Spark. It is a lightweight tool for asynchronous collaboration including threaded messaging and document-sharing. Document editing – at least for documents generated by the MS Office suite of products — is more seamless in Teams than in competitor products. If a client uses, say, the Google GSuite products then the experience would be less well-integrated. Whiteboard notes can be exported directly into Microsoft’s OneNote notetaking program. Again, great integration for those who work that way.

This is the biggest point – designing and recommending AV systems is no longer only about content and video sources and viewing distance. It is now more than ever about workflow and about ecosystem. It’s about what people do and how they do it. The Surface Hub is a tool optimized for certain applications – specifically Skype for Business and Microsoft Office. Users who use Cisco for videoteleconferencing and GSuite for mail and document creation will not get a positive enough experience with the Surface Hub to be worth the price tag. Those who use Microsoft products AND use them to collaborate will likely find value here.

One Thing it Doesn’t Do – and What That Says

Two years ago, I wrote about voice control as one of the “shiny toys” the home tech market is developing and of which we still don’t see much in the boardroom. Given that the Surface Hub has integrated microphones and runs a Windows 10 variant, I took the opportunity to ask about Microsoft’s digital assistant, Cortana. The answer is that Microsoft DID conceive of Cortana voice-integration as a means of interface, but that in practice it worked neither consistently nor helpfully enough to be usable. Part of the issue may be the aforementioned security features; as session data is not recorded (for security), the Cortana assistant in a Surface Hub doesn’t have the ability to learn the voices of its most frequent users. In each interaction, Cortana is hearing you for the first time. This makes the experience less than ideal.

It raises a question about when — or if — the world of digital voice assistants will make the move from living room to boardroom. Certainly in Microsoft’s experience they aren’t there yet, though they remain on the roadmap for home use.

For the nonce, the Hub remains an interesting tool for a certain ecosystem and workflow.