UC Meets Whiteboards: Surface Hub, Perceptive Pixel, Lync Room Systems
With the Surface Hub, Microsoft is ready to force a rethink on the interactive whiteboard.
Microsoft has been in the market for ginormous digital displays for a few years now, but has kept a comparatively low profile. Until now.
Introducing Surface Hub to considerable fanfare earlier this year, Microsoft seems ready to tackle this market with a well-designed, highly differentiated, competitively priced interactive whiteboard that's much more than what we typically think of as an interactive whiteboard. Essentially a supersized tablet with a formidable array of cameras, microphones, motion detectors, and network connections, the device is as much video conferencing endpoint as it is meeting room collaboration tool. And while it's not exactly what Microsoft's technology partners have been delivering over the past couple years, it's similar enough to make comparisons and for potential customers to face a tough decision: Buy Microsoft's UC-capable interactive whiteboards or opt for similar devices from others.
So just like last month, when I looked at a new Microsoft service encroaching on some of its partners' massively scalable online meeting solutions, let's look a bit closer at what Microsoft and others are delivering when it comes to UC-enabled collaboration endpoints for conference rooms.
Microsoft Surface Hub
Surface Hub has a long, involved, and well-documented backstory. Here's the Reader's Digest version:
In 2012 Microsoft acquired Perceptive Pixel, a six-year-old startup whose eight-foot $100,000 interactive displays sold to healthcare providers for medical imaging, TV broadcasters to help explain the news, and defense agencies for... I don't know, blowing stuff up?
The team was initially part of the Office division, then moved to Devices. Meanwhile the display was redesigned, relaunched, repriced, and in 2013 rebranded Progressive Pixel by Microsoft, or PPI for short. Fast-forward to 2015 and along comes another redesign, relaunch, and rebrand -- this time to Surface Hub.
Surface Hub and the now retired PPI are similar in a number of ways. Both are interactive whiteboards with multitouch displays. Both let users interact with various Microsoft apps, including OneNote for whiteboarding and document sharing, and Lync (now Skype for Business) and Skype for video conferencing. Both come in 55- and 80ish-inch models.
But PPI was mainly just a souped-up display. External video cameras and microphones were required for video conferencing support, and the apps users interacted with ran on a separate PC. In Surface Hub, the PC (based on an Intel i5 or i7 processor with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage), applications (Microsoft Office including Skype for Business), and A/V bits and bobs (two 1080p30 cameras, four beam-forming mics, two speakers) are all fully integrated into the device. So in terms of UC, PPI could act as a display for a Lync endpoint, but the endpoint itself was the laptop or desktop connected to it. Whereas Surface Hub is a fully functioning Skype for Business endpoint in its own right, with all the software and multimedia components needed to conduct voice and video calls built right into it.
Lync Room Systems
If this -- a conference room video endpoint with a multitouch display natively running Microsoft's collaboration software -- sounds strangely familiar... well, it should. In 2013 Microsoft introduced a new product category called Lync Room System. Or, perhaps more accurately, Microsoft introduced a set of hardware specs that partners could use to develop this new category of products.
I blogged about LRS solutions back in the day, but to summarize they are interactive whiteboards that ship with video cameras, mics, and a hardware appliance that runs Lync natively. They're deployed in conference rooms where end users can brainstorm, mark up apps, and set up video conferences with remote participants.
LRS solutions have been generally available for more than a year, and in that time they've received some rather significant enhancements that help them differentiate both from one another and from Surface Hub. So let's take a quick look at some of these enhancements.
(Note: Throughout this blog I'll refer to these solutions with the LRS label. It seems like they should now be called Skype for Business Room Systems, but as far as I know that's not Microsoft's plan at this point. And we can't call them Skype Rooms Systems since Microsoft is now using that to refer to an entire portfolio of collaboration solutions that includes LRS, Surface Hub, and other devices.)
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