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Interactive Whiteboards: Illusion of Choice

Earlier this month Google announced the general availability of Jamboard, making it the third out of three collaboration Gargantuas to add an interactive whiteboard to its portfolio.

I just posted a series of profiles detailing which companies sell what when it comes to these supersized tablets that aim to drive easels and dry-erase markers out of the conference room. It turns out there's a whole cast of characters in this particular drama, from edgy start-ups like Display Ten to projector industry stalwarts like Ricoh. Some, like NEC, are names we come across regularly here at No Jitter. Others, such as InFocus, less so.

But since Google competes mainly with Microsoft and since Jamboard is directly comparable to Cisco's Spark Board, let's zero in on these three behemoths of enterprise collaboration software and see how their interactive whiteboards compare.

And how better to compare things like this than lining up their spec sheets? Sadly, that's not so easy: different sheets, different specs. But here's what I've pieced together by combing through product docs, blogs, email exchanges, and webinars. It's a bit of a work in progress, so let me know if you see anything that needs correction. (Note: I've only tried to compare the 55-inch models here. Why complicate things further with different models, which tend to have slightly different specs?)

Comparison of 55" Interactive Whiteboards from Google, Cisco, and Microsoft

Google Jamboard Ciscco Spark Board Microsoft Surface Hub
Price $4,999 + $50/month $4,999 + $200/month $8,999
Software Customized version of Android Marshmallow Spark Board OS Windows 10 Team
Processor Nvidia Jetson TX1 Nvidia Jetson TX1 Intel Core i5
Interface 55" capacitive touch, 16 touch points 55" capacitive touch, 2 touch points 55" capacitive touch, 100 touch points
Display resolution 4k, 120Hz refresh rate 4k, 120Hz refresh rate 1080p, 120Hz refresh rate
Stylus Passive Passive Active
Camera 1080p60, 82° horizontal FOV 4k60, 83° horizontal FOV Two 1080p30, 100° horizontal FOV
Microphone 2 omni-directional stereo mics, plus a third integrated with camera 12-element array 4-element array
Speaker Down facing Front facing Front facing
Sensors Unknown None (camera used to detect motion) 2 passive IR motion sensors, ambient light sensor
Companion app Yes Yes No
I/O HDMI, USB Type C, 2 USB 3.0, S/PDIF audio out HDMI, 2 USB 3.0, 3.5mm mini jack audio out, Bluetooth (currently inactivated) 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, stereo out, RJ11, DisplayPort video out
NFC Yes No Yes
Network ports Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac 100/1000 Ethernet, 802.11a/b/g/n Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11ac
Screen mirroring Google Cast Intelligent Proximity Miracast
Weight 92 lbs. 88 lbs. 105 lbs.
Power consumption 130W in use; no sleep mode 185W in use, 45W in sleep mode Unknown
Language support English English, Spanish, French, German Unknown

The list could continue ad nauseam, comparing the processor speed, casing color, and the relative merits of mounting brackets. But more interesting are all the things that don't fit neatly into a spreadsheet cell. So let's check out a few of them here.

How Jamboard Stands Out

Handwriting and shape recognition. Jamboard, which became generally available on May 23, uses cloud-based handwriting recognition software to turn illegible scrawl into Times New Roman font (among others) --very handy in these dark days of penmanship. It also recognizes shapes, transforming my sloppy quadrangles and ovoid rings into the perfect squares and circles I intended.

Companion app. Whoever is standing in front of the board shouldn't have all the fun. And Jamboard is only 55 inches across, so only a couple people will be able to stand in front of it at once. For others in the conference room -- or working remotely -- a companion app lets whatever folks draw on their mobiles device appear on the board. After the meeting, people can call up saved documents from their smartphones or tablets.

Browser. This is a Google device after all, so it's all about the Web. A built-in Chrome browser lets users access the Web, and clip content to Jamboard. They can also import Docs, Sheets, and Slides files from Drive and annotate over them. But -- someone correct me if I'm wrong -- you're just drawing over them, not actually editing them like you would if working directly within the various G Suite apps.

Wheels. Jamboard doesn't just connect to mobile devices. It's mobile itself. You can mount it on a rolling stand (priced at ($1,349) and wheel it from room to room. This might not be the most whizzbang of features, but if you're forking out $5,000 for one of these, why not let people move it to where they need it?

Colors. Jamboard comes in blue, red, or grey. Pick the color to match your mood... or more likely your office décor.

How Spark Board Stands Out

Intelligent Proximity. I just wrote about this in my recent Spark Board profile, but in a pretty minimalistic way. So let's dig into it a little more here. Intelligent Proximity for Content Sharing is what Spark Board uses to connect to mobile devices nearby. When Spark Board detects one, it pairs with it, identifies the user, and suggests what to do next, such as start a new whiteboard session or call up a particular Spark room. Intelligent Proximity also lets users control Spark Board from the Spark app on their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, as well as view Spark Board content on their mobiles and share content to it.

Ditch the dongle. Intelligent Proximity also does away with the need for Chromecast, Miracast, or some other device to share content from laptops and mobiles. When Spark Board recognizes that these are nearby, it pairs with them and lets users share content to the board.

Room to grow. Spark Board is Cisco's first go at an interactive whiteboard. To make the user experience as simple and straightforward as possible, the company has not tried to pack too much into the device. It has, however, included a number of components that are inactive just now, but can be turned on to enable new functionality. For example, Spark Board doesn't currently support Bluetooth, yet its got a Bluetooth chipset baked into it. So if customers demand support for cordless headsets or some such thing, Cisco can enable this without requiring them to buy a new whiteboard. Also sleeping somewhere in the system are "intelligent software algorithms" that will enable active speaker tracking during video sessions. It's something Spark Board can't do now, but down the road, who knows?

How Surface Hub stands out

Collaborative editing. Surface Hub isn't just a whiteboard you doodle on. I mean, you can do that, but Surface Hub is a full-fledged Windows 10 PC that lets you launch and co-edit apps running on it. This can be your standard office productivity sorts of apps, or ones specific to a particular industry like medicine, design, education, and music. Meeting participants can start up the apps, edit, and otherwise work on projects together and save them -- all on Surface Hub.

Touchback and Inkback. Instead of running the application on Surface Hub, users can connect a laptop in the conference room and use Surface Hub to:

  • Display, mark up, co-edit, and save shared apps back to the laptop (via a feature called Inkback)
  • Control the shared app from Surface Hub (via a feature called Touchback)

Styli. Surface Hub pens are active, rather than passive. To the CFO, this means that if one is broken or misplaced the company needs to shell out $130 to replace it. (So whatever you do, don't chuck one across the conference room at Brian, who never pays attention at meetings!) To IT, it means more potential end user problems and another device to support. But it also means that each one has its own identity recognizable by Surface Hub. Two or more users at the board can each assign a different color ink to each of their pens. They're pressure-sensitive, so the harder you press, the thicker the line produced. And Surface Hub recognizes one end of the pen from the other, so the pointy part writes and the blunt part erases -- just like your yellow No. 2 in days of yore.

Near field communication. Surface Hub has an NFC reader that can be used in a number of ways. It recognizes pens, "so you can take one from one Hub and by the time you get close to another Hub, the pen has paired itself to the new device." And it's used to log into various apps running on Surface Hub, such as like Stormboard and Collaboard. Instead of entering user name and password, people can log in by scanning a QR code.

The Illusion of Choice

You might think this side-by-side comparison of Cisco's, Google's, and Microsoft's interactive whiteboards was somehow helpful. You might even think you now have all the info you need to choose which one to buy.

I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you, but you're wrong.

When it comes to these devices, you have no choice. Two of them are completely unsuitable, while one is absolutely perfect.

And to learn which one ... tune in next week.

Editor's note: Since original posting, Google submitted missing specs and table has been updated accordingly. Table also corrects erroneous information on the Miracast support in Microsoft Surface Hub.

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