Microsoft’s new Surface Hub 2: potential game changer for conference rooms

The Surface Hub 2 could be a significant to digital conferencing and collaboration.

The idea of collaborative screens for conference rooms has been bouncing around for some time. The promise of integrating video conferencing and digital white boards into a single offering certainly looked compelling but adaption has lagged expectations. Much of this is tied to three problems, the solutions can be very expensive to buy and install, the devices can be very difficult to setup and use, and people are creatures of habit and current habits don’t include using digital white boards. This last has been particularly problematic because no CEO likes seeing expensive technology go unused yet that has often been the case after these things are installed.  

The new Surface Hub, Surface Hub 2, from Microsoft [disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author] is focused on the first problem particularly regarding large size solutions. Surface Hub as a platform, being based on Skype, was already comparatively easy to use once installed. However, the cost of the first generation was between $8,000 and $30,000 installed which is still expensive particularly if you needed to buy a lot of them.  

Generation 2 appears to be significantly cost reduced. Let’s explore why it may be successful in driving collaboration change where the first generation wasn’t.  

Getting to critical mass

To assure the use of a tool like the Surface Hub there must be enough of them installed so that they are used often enough to become a common practice. The initial cost of the solution was so high that most firms could only afford trials which means that the vast majority of conference rooms didn’t have them reducing dramatically their utility. For two conference rooms to effectively use the product both of them must have the product but at between $8,000 and $30,000 a pop that just wasn’t the case, I expect, most of the time the screens were unused. Even when documenting a meeting, if you mostly don’t have the screen available to you because it isn’t in the room you are using, you won’t develop the skills to use it and no one likes to look foolish struggling with a new technology in front of an audience.  

To further add to this given most conference rooms did likely still have digital projectors in them employees likely favored them because they knew how to use the projectors.  So even though the Surface Hub, given its wireless connections, might have been more convenient to use by a trained user, since most weren’t trained on it, the relate rooms were likely often avoided.  

So, the devices just couldn’t get to critical mass.  

Surface Hub 2

Surface Hub 2 appears to be a 50” class product. Currently this is in the sweet spot for TV panels and it is designed to be tiled for larger implementations. I addition it uses a different camera implementation, one that is added to the device and not built in. This should allow the price of the device to come down sharply. The end result should be closer to $2,000 per panel than their prior near $9K per panel price for the existing smaller offering. Currently high end (reads Sony) 55” 4K TVs sell for around $650 and with these new Surface Hub 2 products due in 2019.

This should allow a company to deploy four or more of these for the cost of one of the older smaller versions and dramatically reduce the cost of a larger implementation using tiled displays. What is also interesting is that because the camera is now a separate item the camera implementation should be customizable allowing the use of scanning, panning cameras, infra-red cameras (for security and user authentication), and remote camera placement for larger or unusually laid out rooms. In addition, the display can be rotated now providing more flexibility and it has a built-in fingerprint ready providing a higher level of security. 

Wrapping up: closing the gap but…

This new Surface Hub design should allow the devices to proliferate more widely but companies using the technology will still have to drive usage. Now the flexibility of the product should make them more interesting to use but employees still have a tendency to drop back to what they know. So incentives to use the device and aggressive use by managers and internal influences will be needed to get usage to a level where it overcomes past practices.   

Falling under Microsoft’s overall cloud strategies the experience should improve dramatically as well but showcasing these advantages to drive usage will, unfortunately, still be necessary. 

One interesting observation is that the Surface Hub 2 is often shown in Portrait mode. During a set of video conferencing trials years ago using a screen in portrait mode and placed in a doorway was, based on feedback, preferred by users for long distance on-to-one conversations. I wonder if that might be explored more effectively with this product providing a stronger alternative to face-to-face meetings. 

Surface Hub 2, particularly when tied to expected cloud services, should be a significant boost to using these digital conferencing/collaboration systems. However, users will still need to be pushed to use them until they become more the norm than the exception. Changing behavior is often the biggest problem when it comes to an innovative technology. 

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