Microsoft Surface Hub Could Solve Enterprise Collaboration Problems

The workplace is changing dramatically, with more and more workers being disbursed outside of the office. The office isn't going away, so what are the best ways to collaborate? Microsoft just announced a new hardware product called Surface Hub that tries to attack the problems.

20150121 183115919 ios

Microsoft explains Surface Hub at an event at their Redmond HQ

Credit: Patrick Moorhead

At boutique analyst firm Moor Insights & Strategy, we do a lot of work predicting the future of the workplace and its related technologies. Our view of the workplace of the future has more employees on the move and who work remotely for different companies at the same time. Microsoft's most recent foray into solving some of the challenges of that workplace future is hardware called the Microsoft Surface Hub.

The Surface Hub surprised me and others when Microsoft announced it alongside their major Windows 10 event that I attended last month, but it isn't totally out of left field. The Surface Hub is designed to be Microsoft's premier hardware solution for the future of live, collaborative work, combining customized hardware, Windows 10 and new collaboration apps. The Surface Hub also highlights Microsoft's continued intentions to be in hardware and just how serious they are about fighting the battle for the conference room against Google, Cisco and Polycom.

Changes in the Workplace

Where is the future workplace? Wherever you are. As workers and workplace change over the next five to ten years, we see that employees, contractors, and white collar "mercenaries" are becoming ever more remote and mobile. The wave of younger employees will expect and receive a more flexible work schedule and may end up working more odd hours or from more odd places outside of the office. The office isn't going away, but the owned office will be used less, and nomadic, rented office use will rise.

This vision ultimately results in a need for the enterprises of the future to improve the time that people do spend together through collaboration. As workers become ever more remote, the need to make collaboration sessions and meetings more productive increases, making the need for a type of wall computing even more prevalent. Microsoft believes that part of solving the problems includes their own Surface Hub device which combines a customized version of Windows 10, collaboration apps and large high-resolution displays powered by Intel processors and graphics.

Not Microsoft's First Rodeo

Microsoft's Surface Hub announcement caught many by surprise at their Windows 10 event, as many didn't expect the company to announce any sort of Microsoft collaboration hardware. Microsoft has tried large format computing solutions in the past, but they were mostly conceptual, low volume, and didn't really serve a specific purpose. They were "cool" and did show that Microsoft could innovate.  The original Surface appeared to be Microsoft's first attempt at large display devices even if that wasn't necessarily squarely aimed at enterprise collaboration.

The Microsoft PixelSense (originally called the Surface) was a table that was supposed to be used for a multitude of purposes but was eventually sold into restaurants, retail (AT&T) and hotels. Eventually, Samsung ended up making one, but the Microsoft original cost $12,500. Microsoft sold every one they could make. Currently, there is no pricing so we have no idea whether or not Microsoft will price the Surface Hub more affordably or even more expensively than PixelSense.

Surface Hub Details

The Microsoft Surface Hub comes in two flavors, a 55-inch 1080p version as well as an 84-inch 4K model, both of which feature very high refresh rate 120Hz displays for zero lag writing. The Surface Hub's display is optically bounded for extra clarity and supports up to 100 simultaneous touch points. This would mean that five people could theoretically share a single Surface Hub and have every finger be recognized on it at the same time. This is a vast improvement over the original Surface table which only supported 50 simultaneous touch points and was in a table form factor rather than a TV- or Whiteboard-like environment.

The Surface Hub also supports up to three pens simultaneously, meaning that you could have up to three different people drawing on the same board while also having others touching with their fingers. This support for multiple pens really makes collaboration and white board brainstorming type sessions possible. When I used Surface Hub at the Microsoft event two weeks ago, the writing was the best experience I've used with a pen. There was absolutely no lag even when two other people were writing at the same time. That's hard to do.

It also features two wide-angle 1080p cameras for videoconferencing and a very high quality microphone array in order to capture audio effectively and clearly. It also has support for plugging in external devices including HDMI, USB, Bluetooth, Miracast and NFC connectivity. All of this is powered by an Intel 4th Generation Core i5 processor, giving it the performance it needs to run smoothly in any situation.

Getting Deeper Into the OEM Rabbit Hole

With the Surface Hub, Microsoft is continuing to expand into hardware systems wherever they see it "necessary." Necessary has meant either they need to provide a halo product for their OEMs or the lack of an OEM product. Microsoft appears to be attempting to build an entire ecosystem of their own hardware around Windows 10. The Surface Hub addresses future Windows 10 enterprise customers' collaboration needs. This is in addition to Microsoft's own mobile devices division, which they bought from Nokia, as well as their Surface line of tablets and, of course, Microsoft's face wearable, HoloLens. This gives Microsoft a pretty broad presence in mobile, tablets, convertibles and large format computers. But they aren't making notebooks or workstations, yet. Microsoft needs to be very careful about the line they walk with their own partners because they run the risk of losing them more to Google if they compete more directly.

No Price, No Date

Microsoft hasn't talked precisely about pricing or release dates, but my first impressions of the Surface Hub, without having it in my business and using it for work, are positive across the board. It solves many known collaboration problems without creating too many. Microsoft's pricing will ultimately indicate where they intend to target this device and how many they intend to sell. If they price it high, it will clearly target Fortune 500 customers with their massive budgets and the ability to replace their proprietary videoconferencing gear. If they price it more affordably, it will indicate they may be primarily targeting small-to-medium businesses instead.

Since there is no specific release or ship date, I also have no idea when to expect these on the market, but the logical assumption would be around the Windows 10 release, expected late in the year. The general consensus is that Microsoft will aim for the pre-holiday shopping season, likely meaning a late October or early November release date.

Wrapping Up

I believe the Surface Hub is one of those, "why didn't someone think of that first" products.  It makes so much sense and fixes many problems workers and businesses have with collaboration today, and even more sense into the future, given worker disaggregation.  Microsoft is competing with OEMs, but then again, the OEMs had their chance and didn't take the shot. I want one for my small business if it delivers what I saw in Redmond as I could see it improving work with my teams and clients.  Nice move, Microsoft.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
Download the CIO October 2016 Digital Magazine
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.