Navigating the UC-Enabled Interactive Whiteboard Maze

  • All the hullaballoo Cisco has been making about Spark Board draws attention to an obscure yet interesting type of UC endpoint: the video-enabled interactive whiteboard. I've seen beasts of this kind in the wild for a few years now, but have looked on them more as curiosities than the kind of devices poised for mass adoption.

    Vendors that specialize in projectors seem to be the most established, with comparatively full portfolios based on mature technology that has changed and adapted as customer requirements have evolved. UC vendors have had less luck, with Polycom's UC Board discontinued last year and Microsoft revamping its approach to whiteboards for Skype for Business.

    Given that these things are more in the UC spotlight now than they have been in years, let's take a look at which companies are selling what.

    (Note: This isn't going to be a clean apple-to-apples comparison. Some vendors have a single model, others have two, and still others an entire product family that has grown over time with each member possessing different specs. So you'll need to do some legwork in comparing one model to another. And it won't be comprehensive. So if I haven't mentioned your favorite device, please mention it in the comments. In fact, I'll start things off with Dell, NEC, and Optika-Logitech-Zoom solutions that I'm not going to write separate profiles on.)

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  • Types of Digital Whiteboards
    Donning the analyst's hat, I divide interactive whiteboard into groups of devices targeting an ever-narrower set of customers:

    • First there are your garden-variety digital whiteboards. They're like the paper kind... only digital! You can draw on them. You can save what you draw. A given unit might have some bells and whistles specific to it. But it's mainly a standalone device that's not really meant to be connected to anything.

    • Then there are the digital whiteboards that do all that, but can also be connected to each other over a network. You write on the whiteboard in your conference room and people see what you wrote on whiteboards in other conference rooms. Or on mobile apps. Or both. Presumably there's some kind of communications session going on at the same time, but that's over an audio bridge or maybe a video conferencing system completely separate from the whiteboard itself.

    • Next there are whiteboards that do all that but have A/V components built directly into them. Or the A/V stuff is connected to them by cables. Either way, the whiteboard now doubles as a conferencing endpoint in its own right.

    • Finally, there are whiteboards that interconnect with each other, have integrated cameras and speakers, and are optimized to work with a specific collaboration platform or service, such as Cisco Spark or Microsoft Skype for Business.

    Now that that's out of the way, let's look at a number of the devices themselves. As with my recent team collaboration app slideshow, we'll go alphabetically by product name.

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  • Ricoh D-Series
    Not a name that typically crops up here at No Jitter, Ricoh is an electronics firm I associate with printers and projectors. But it turns out that making projectors gives manufacturers a fairly direct entrée into the market for interactive whiteboards. I mean, if loads of companies have put your projectors in conference rooms so people can share content, why not also sell them other gadgets that can share content in conference rooms?

    Ricoh released its first interactive whiteboard in 2014 -- a 55-in. model that could network with up to three other devices, as well as let dozens of others remotely view the content being shared and annotated on the devices.

    This has since expanded into a portfolio of four units of varying sizes for different-sized meeting rooms. There are other differences across the models besides the size of the display. The newer 84-in. and 22-in. devices support more touchpoints (10) compared with the older 65-in. and 55-in. models. And the 84 in. has a screen with 4K resolution, higher than what the other devices are capable of.

    Also interesting are differences in how the devices support video conferencing. The D2200 is the only fully integrated all-in-one device. It has a fully integrated wide-angle webcam and internal front-facing speakers, so it's ready to go as a video conferencing endpoint. The other models, on the other hand, require external components. Ricoh prefers customers to use its P3500 "Unified Communications System," with its curious, pop-up webcam, and its Cloud Meeting Service (which seems to be powered by Vidyo). But it's entirely possible to use third-party video devices, systems, and services with the D-Series whiteboards.

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  • Display Ten DTen
    If a spectrum has at one end all-in-one video-enabled interactive whiteboards optimized for a specific platform from established vendors with large portfolios, then Display Ten is at the other. The startup focuses specifically on making interactive whiteboards for enterprises. It came out with its first product -- a 70-in. device -- in early 2016 and other models later in the year.

    Unlike a lot of other vendors in this space, Display Ten doesn't try to double up as a provider of video calling services or a developer of video conferencing systems. It doesn't even ship its whiteboard with a webcam that you can plug in. Think of the various DTen models as a starting point. They're interactive whiteboards that you can use just as interactive whiteboards if that's all you're looking for. With one of these whiteboards, you can write on a limitless canvas, share content to and from mobile devices and laptops, annotate on pretty much any app, and so forth.

    Or you can add pretty much any webcam, an optional in-built PC, and video service and -- presto-chango! -- you've got the whole shebang. I saw one configured like this at Enterprise Connect. It had a Huddly camera, a Yamaha sound bar, and ran Zoom Rooms for Touch, a version of the provider's service optimized for interactive whiteboards. But you can add a Logitech camera and run Skype for Business, or use a Revolabs cam and GoToMeeting... or whatever.

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  • Google Jamboard
    Google may seem an unlikely entrant into the interactive whiteboard ring. But the company faces off against Microsoft in the office productivity apps space and against Cisco in the video and collaboration services market. Both have introduced interactive whiteboards to complement their offerings, so it shouldn't be surprising for Google to do the same.

    Announced in late 2016 and scheduled to ship this month, Jamboard is the first physical endpoint Google designed specifically for G Suite. It looks like a ginormous tablet, running Android and making it easy for users to pull content from Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drive into whiteboard sessions. Video conferencing is via Hangouts Meet. Google Cast lets it share content to and from other devices. And a companion app lets people view and annotate content on the board.

    All the A/V components are fully integrated into the device so you hardly notice they're there at all. Instead of black, white, or zombie-skin grey, Jamboard seems to be bright red -- guaranteed to brighten up even the drabbest of conference rooms.

    Hangouts Meet provides video conferencing with up to 30 participants. Using Jamboard lets only one of them be displayed at a time. But if you've got Chromebox for Meetings in your conference room, you can pair it with Jamboard and get more of a full-blown video conference going.

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  • InFocus Mondopad
    Another projector developer that's broadened its horizons, InFocus introduced its first interactive whiteboard back in 2011. Mondopad was something of a collaborative effort, involving Fugoo (speakers), Avistar (video platform), and Vidtel (conferencing service). InFocus has since bought Avistar and, following Vidtel's demise, launched its own meeting service, called ConX.

    At first InFocus offered just a single (57 in.) model; now it has four. They all ship with a top-mounted USB-attached camera and bottom-mounted speakers, and all have an inbuilt Windows PC running Office 2013. Mondopads automatically detect and pair with JTouch, InFocus' more basic (and less expensive) interactive whiteboard. This allows for a quick-and-easy dual-screen configuration, where you can have all video on one device and whiteboarding on both or either.

    As mentioned, InFocus has its own service that can interconnect your Mondopads and other InFocus-developed video systems. But there's no reason you can't run Zoom, Skype for Business, or some other video client on the inbuilt PC instead. The intent is for the Mondopad to fit into a company's conferencing environment regardless of which communications services or systems power it.

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  • Smart Room System for Skype for Business
    If you think an interactive whiteboard with native video conferencing that brings the Skype for Business experience to conference rooms sounds familiar... it probably means you read too much of my stuff. It might also mean you remember how Smart and a few others first announced these things way back in 2013. Back then they were based on the Lync Room System reference spec, which later got some minor tweaks to become the Skype Room System (SRS) reference spec, which recently got some major tweaks that turned it into a very different kind of animal.

    I'm not going to detail all the ways Skype Room System version 2 differs from what I've seen brilliantly described as "Classic Skype Room System." But the salient point for this blog is while Classic SRS has native whiteboarding, SRS v2 doesn't. And the salient point for this profile in particular is Smart Room System is still based on Classic SRS, delivering an all-in-one whiteboarding/videoconferencing experience that the new-fangled SRS solutions don't.

    With that preamble out of the way, let's take a closer look at Smart Technologies' device. It comes in three models, each of which have dual-screen configurations as an option -- so lots of options depending on the size of your conference room. Smart Room System updates to be released this month include support for the most recent Skype for Business client, Skype Meeting Broadcast, and video-based screen sharing.

    It supports only two touchpoints thanks to some weirdness in the Microsoft reference spec. But there's nothing in the hardware preventing more, and I'm told up to 16 are supported when the device is in "interactive sharing" mode. Interactive sharing, incidentally, is a really interesting feature. It lets users mark up most any business application displayed on the monitor, then save it in the same format as the app it came from... not just as an image file.

    Finally, Smart offers a number of professional and managed services around Smart Room System: usage reporting ($1,079/year), proactive monitoring ($1,199/year), and network readiness ($3,799/site).

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  • Smart Kapp IQ
    Smart has another video-enabled whiteboard in its portfolio. It's entirely different from Smart Room System, so let's look at it separately here.

    Whereas Smart Room System has integrated A/V gear and is optimized for a specific UC platform (Skype for Business), Smart Kapp IQ doesn't. (I'm actually supposed to write this one out as SMART kapp iQ. I've tried, but -- I'm sorry -- I just can't do quirky caps. If i COUld, wherE woULd iT EnD?) Instead, you add your own webcam and speakers, and connect it to most any video service. Alternately, you connect it to external video conferencing systems, like Cisco SX-10 and SX-20 devices, already in the conference room. Or you don't, and you let it just be a whiteboard.

    Smart Kapp IQ has proximity detection, so it turns on and off depending on whether people are around. Users -- up to 250 (!) of them -- can view and contribute to whiteboard sessions remotely. It recognizes different types of gestures, so I can write on it with my finger, you can be using two fingers to zoom in on something, and a third person can be using her palm to erase something all at the same time.

    The Pro version adds the ability to write over various business, design, and engineering apps, including Acrobat, PowerPoint, Autodesk, and Solidworks. Pro also integrates directly with Office 365, works with Smart's server-based video conferencing platform Bridgit, and networks with up to 16 other Pro devices.

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  • Cisco Spark Board
    Announced in 2016 and made available in early 2017, Spark Board is the first endpoint designed specifically for Spark, Cisco's cloud-based collaboration service. Video conferencing endpoints like the SX10 can connect to Spark, as well as to other Cisco video systems and services. And desk phones like the 7800 and 8800 Series serve as endpoints when a company is using Spark as a UCaaS service, as well as when a company is using other Cisco UC systems and services. But Spark Board was designed just for Spark.

    Spark Board is a video-capable interactive whiteboard of the "fully integrated" variety. Camera, speakers, and microphone are all built in, creating a sleek, minimalistic design that would make the most Scandinavian of Scandinavian furniture designers proud. It has a lower number of touchpoints relative to the competition... hopefully something that will be corrected in future models.

    Intelligent Proximity for Content Sharing app pairs a mobile device to Spark Board (or various Cisco video endpoints in a conference room). This lets users control Spark Board from their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, as well as view Spark Board content on their mobiles and share content on the mobiles to Spark Board. And "companion mode" lets Spark Board automatically pair with an MX Series or other Cisco video endpoint in the conference room. This way the video conference is on the video system, freeing up Spark Board real estate for whiteboarding. Integration with non-Cisco conferencing technology is in the works, presumably based on Acano technology.

    No Jitter bloggers have written loads more on this thing. So check out what Zeus Kerravala, Phil Edholm, Michelle Burbick, and Irwin Lazar have to say to get the whole story.

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  • Microsoft Surface Hub
    I outlined the genesis of Surface Hub a while back. It's an interesting story, but is starting to read like a history lesson, so no need to dwell on it here. Suffice it to say Microsoft announced its interactive whiteboard in 2015, hit a number of snags, then started shipments in early 2016.

    In the fall, Microsoft said it sold more than 600 devices to an unspecified number of businesses, and more recently it announced selling an unspecified number of devices to more than 2,000 enterprises, with individual orders ranging from one to 1,500 (!) units. A/V specialist Whitlock has sold about 800 of the devices so far. So there's some impressive growth figures around Surface Hub.

    You can run any Universal Windows Platform apps on Surface Hub. About 20 apps -- including various medical, engineering, architecture, and educational ones -- have been optimized for it. A recent software update added Office 365 sign-on from the Surface Hub start screen, as well as various improvements to how Skype for Business works on it. Content can be shared and annotated across multiple Surface Hubs via Stormboard software, with multiple users now able to simultaneously write on the networked boards.

    Microsoft also recently introduced a couple new purchasing options. One is a monthly subscription plan called "Surface Hub as a Service." This is offered by partners, rather than by Microsoft itself, and in most cases seems to be essentially an option to lease. Examples include:

    Another purchasing option is a Try and Buy program that lets Arrow SI, AVI-SPL, CDW, and other partners essentially lend Surface Hubs to enterprises for a month before they commit to buying them.

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  • Others?
    If I haven't mentioned your favorite video-enabled interactive whiteboard, please mention it in the comments section below!

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These devices are more in the UC spotlight now than they have been in years, so let’s take a look at which companies are selling what.