What is the Microsoft Surface Hub?

There is a lot of buzz about Microsoft's latest hardware product - the Surface Hub. But exactly what is it and why are people so excited about it? If you ask Wikipedia it is an "interactive whiteboard announced by Microsoft on 21 January 2015 at the Windows 10 Event in Redmond." Or, using Microsoft's own words, it's "a powerful team collaboration device designed to advance the way people work together naturally."

OK - so that doesn't actually tell us much...

In more technical terms it is a high-quality touchscreen display with integrated touchscreen, pen digitizer, cameras, microphones, speakers and an integrated PC. Crucially, the PC is running a customized version of Windows 10 and customized versions of OneNote and Skype for Business, which round-off its collaboration functionality.

Why is it exciting?

There are many large touchscreen displays available today, many of which also feature integrated PCs that run the Microsoft operating system. So what makes the Surface Hub different and exciting? For anyone using the Surface Hub, it becomes immediately obvious that the custom version of Windows 10 and the other Microsoft applications used are the differentiating factor, and is why Microsoft can deliver a well thought-out, fully-loaded, and easy-to-use collaborative white board solution. When in a meeting multiple people at one time can annotate on the screen along with the ability to bring up Microsoft and third party applications. All of this happens spontaneously. There is also the functionality for image capture and automatic emailing of meeting contents. Surface Hub becomes even more powerful when using the integrated and customized Skype for Business application, which brings together remote Skype for Business users, allowing them to participate and see all that occurs on the interactive white board as well as share applications, and of course see the presenter in real-time. In this case, remote users are seen on video in a strip on the left side of the screen. All of this comes together to make this the most compelling white board experience we have seen to date.

What products does it compete with?

While the Surface Hub is quite simply a fantastic white boarding experience, it is not alone and competes in a market that has, thus far, been dominated by SMART and others. However, in true cannibalistic style, there is another Microsoft product that one could argue the Surface Hub competes with, to a point where it is rendered defunct and that is the Lync Room System (LRS). The LRS is the previous generation, of some of the technology that is used in the Surface Hub. LRS is a system running software provided by Microsoft on hardware from a handful of third parties such as SMART, Crestron and Polycom. Anyone looking at one of these systems should certainly consider the Surface Hub instead, particularly as you don't have to be too cynical to believe that Microsoft's R&D attention will be keenly focused on the Surface Hub, rather than the LRS.

What products does it not compete with?

At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that the Surface Hub completely removes the need for traditional video conferencing systems. However, while it offers Skype for Business integration, it is not designed as a meeting or conference room video conferencing solution where participants are sat around a meeting room table. It is what it says on the tin 'a very high end white-boarding system' and is designed for people to use standing-up in front of it, drawing on it, and touching it. In other words, it really doesn't compete with, but instead complements a video conferencing solution, which in of itself has the sole purpose of bringing people together face-to-face. It is in these circumstances that the Surface Hub is an uncomfortable fit.

Consequently, it is not an effective replacement for a traditional video conferencing style meeting, where people want to sit around a table, connect to other meeting rooms and/or remote workers and hold in-depth discussions, where all opinions need to be clearly heard and body language understood. Also worthy of note is that while the Surface Hub is very easy to use compared to other white boards out there - it still can be daunting for many users, who walk into a meeting room and who simply want to make a call. So while we love the Surface Hub, it has to be said that there is still a need for professional video conferencing meeting room solutions, like the StarLeaf GTm 5220.

This system is designed specifically to deliver the Skype for Business environment with professional grade connectivity, which allows the use of professional audio and video equipment, such as high quality cameras and microphones. Also the StarLeaf GTm 5220, will never faze anyone as its user interface is highly intuitive - a lot like a smartphone. For example, it only takes a single button press to join a call, and another single button press allows users to collaborate using their PCs. It is all about being comfortable sat around a table - standing is not for everyone! Maybe these pictures will help explain the different use cases.

StarLeaf Meeting Room System Surface Hub Meeting Room   

So - what will people use?

The beauty of Skype for Business is that users can have their cake and eat it too! Meaning that one doesn't eliminate the other, there is a need for both, and the choice will be made based upon what is the primary function of the room. There may even be some rooms where it actually makes sense to install a Surface Hub and a video conferencing solution - StarLeaf GTm 5220. And remember - there is no reason why they would not call each other. In fact, this could be a great use case, imagine a remote R&D engineer presenting his latest solution using a Surface Hub to his management team sat in their meeting room equipped with a StarLeaf GTm 5220. The main thing is to understand how a room will be used, what it will be used for and then ensure the correct system is purchased. At StarLeaf we can certainly help you make the correct design decisions. For more information visit www.starleaf.com or  email us. Or why not check out what industry analysts, Wainhouse, have to say about options for video conferencing in a Skype for Business world!