Microsoft Surface Hub Combines Video, Whiteboard

The software maker's huge 84-inch all-in-one system will leverage Windows 10, OneNote and Skype for Business.

Microsoft Surface Hub

Mixed in with all the feature presentations during Microsoft's Windows 10 event this week was the introduction of Surface Hub, the software giant's massive device that combines video conferencing with whiteboard technology that officials said will make collaboration easier and more productive.

Microsoft is leveraging a broad array of its products—from the upcoming Windows 10 operating system to Skype for Business, Office and OneNote—housed in an all-in-one, 84-inch, 4K touch-screen display that includes built-in cameras and microphones, motion sensors, near-field communications (NFC), Bluetooth and WiFi. It's also powered by 4th Generation Core i5 and i7 processors from Intel.

Company officials at the Jan. 21 event said the product offers the collaboration tools businesses are looking for with an ease of use that includes being able to start and join meetings with a single touch.

It's the company's latest push into a highly competitive collaboration space that includes the likes of Cisco Systems, Polycom, Avaya and ShoreTel, as well as a wide range of connected whiteboard vendors. It's also a market in transition, with such trends as greater worker mobility, the consumerization of IT, big data and cloud putting greater demands on vendors to offer tools to make collaboration easier, more intuitive and accessible by all employees regardless of where they are, what time it is or what device they're using.

IDC analysts have tracked the decline of sales of video conferencing equipment as businesses move toward software- and cloud-based solutions.

Microsoft offers its share of commercial tools, from the Lync unified communications (UC) platform to Skype for Business video conferencing. Surface Hub pushes those efforts forward.

"It's engineered to be inviting and engaging, making meetings more productive," Mike Angiulo,
corporate vice president of Microsoft's Devices Group, wrote in a post on the company blog. "Built in sensors help the device to wake up when you're near and track your movement so cameras can follow you. Meetings start instantly with a single touch. Meeting participants can share content wirelessly from Miracast capable devices, making meetings engaging and productive. By removing the points of friction throughout the meeting process, the process of starting and ending meetings, sharing content and collaborating as a remote participant is simple and natural."

Surface Hub uses Skye for Business to drive the conferencing capabilities, as well as the OneNote digital note-taking application. Built-in sensors let the cameras track the movements of participants, and the digital whiteboard comes up when a person picks up a stylus pen. Users can write on the whiteboard and have the annotations show up on the devices—such as notebooks, tablets and smartphones—being used by other participants. People can even move the notes they've made on the whiteboard around the screen.

The notes can be saved in email or in the OneNote application.

Forrester analyst Philipp Karcher wrote in a post on the firm's blog that he was impressed with the user experience of the Surface Hub.

"We've been wowed by devices that cost $100,000 or more, and underwhelmed by lower cost devices that try to deliver the breadth of what Microsoft is offering here," Karcher wrote. "Sensors that detect your proximity to light up the screen, automatically launching the whiteboard application when you pick up the pen, and wide angle cameras that show you clearly when you're right up against the screen are nice touches. Microsoft also has an advantage over other vendors with custom versions of OneNote and Skype for Business optimized for Surface Hub in a custom Windows 10 shell."

He also noted that businesses will now have two options from Microsoft when looking for conference room collaboration solutions. The vendor already offers a reference architecture for Lync Room Systems that also combines digital whiteboards and video conferencing technology.

"Buyers will have to make the comparison between these purely Lync-optimized solutions and a more flexible Windows 10 experience in Surface Hub that can run multiple applications on the same screen," Karcher wrote, noting that while Microsoft has yet to offer pricing information for the Surface Hub, he expects it to cost more than the Lync Room Systems.