Microsoft: Beneath the Surface

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  June 17, 2015

Microsoft’s recent announcement of the new Surface Hub finds the company in an increasingly familiar and comfortable hardware development mode. But before getting into that, let’s look at Microsoft’s solution for group collaboration.

Basically, the Surface Hub is a large to majestic (either a 55-inch version for $6,999 or an 84-inch version for $19,999) multi-touch-enabled, wall-mounted display for group meeting rooms. The device supports a broad range of Microsoft software and productivity solutions, including Windows 10, Skype for Business, Office, OneNote and Universal Windows apps.

According to the company, the Surface Hub “delivers the power and versatility of a complete, cloud-connected Windows 10 device along with the simplicity and consistency of a custom interface … built for shared spaces.” Microsoft envisions it as something anyone can, “walk up (to) and use, providing an engaging way to share ideas and information” in processes like white-boarding, videoconferencing and content sharing.

The Surface Hub achieves this via an optically bonded display that can detect 100 points of multi-touch and up to three simultaneous pen inputs. Dual 1080p front-facing cameras capture activities during videoconferencing sessions, and a four-element microphone array detects/follows voice while eliminating background noise. The Surface Hub also includes built-in Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC and numerous ports for easy wired and wireless connectivity options

In addition, the ability to support popular Microsoft productivity apps and processes, along with numerous Universal Windows apps means that the Surface Hub should be simple to use and easy to integrate in collaborative business processes, helping them to be more effective and productive. The company will begin shipping the Surface Hub in September to 24 global markets via numerous distributors.

Surface branding

If any of this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. “Surface” as a Microsoft brand has been around since 2007, six years after the concept was introduced by the company’s research division and half a decade before it introduced the first gen Surface (RT) and Surface Pro tablets. The original Surface solutions were tabletop-style devices developed by Microsoft (and eventually partner Samsung) for multi-touch commercial and workplace use cases. Those products were rebranded PixelSense in 2012 when Microsoft decided to use the name for its tablet devices.

The new Surface Hub obviously has more in common with PixelSense than Microsoft’s tablet portfolio but is also far more powerful and flexible in the collaboration processes and scenarios that it supports. Partly that’s due to technology evolution, including the modern HD flat panel multi-touch displays that replaced the 4:3 rear projection display (1024×768) and five near-infrared (IR) cameras that enabled touch response in the original Surface.

But the Surface Hub also supports far more diverse Windows applications than the PixelSense which leveraged Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), a graphical subsystem with restively limited use cases. As a result, Windows-focused developers are more likely to investigate and embrace Surface Hub.

Microsoft still holds the reins

Perhaps the most interesting point about the Surface Hub is how it reflects Microsoft’s continuing, proactive management of Windows platform innovations, a policy that emerged under former CEO Steve Ballmer. This is partly due to necessity. Large scale interactive displays are expensive experiments with uncertain markets, never a popular pastime among budget-conscious OEMs.

But Microsoft’s hands-on strategy has also led to some dreadful missteps. Those include the company’s decision to compete directly with OEMs in the nascent Windows tablet market. That, along with the Surface RT platform’s technical limitations, inspired many OEMs to abandon Microsoft’s ARM-compatible efforts and redouble Android tablet development.

That isn’t likely to be an issue with the Surface Hub. There are certainly other, far less costly video conferencing solutions, including those leveraging Google’s Chromebox for Meetings but those lack the full interactive functionality of the Surface Hub. Microsoft’s configuration and pricing strategy places the new solution firmly on the medium to large enterprise market. However, as the cost of large scale, multi-touch displays inevitably declines, it could tempt other vendors to explore the market Microsoft currently has to itself.

Final analysis

The arrival of the Surface Hub well into the tenure of current CEO Satya Nadella demonstrates, as did previous Surface iterations, that Microsoft continues to nurture product innovation along with a firm plan to control its own destiny. But the clear focus of this new solution on bread and butter enterprise customers also signals the company’s intention to stay ahead of the field when it comes to the workplace.

Past design efforts, strategic incoherence and a sometimes curious lack of will at Microsoft made life for the company’s competitors far easier than it should have been, particularly for those focused on consumer markets. Microsoft can’t afford to make those same mistakes in its core business markets, all of which are being eyed, coveted and probed by serious, well-funded vendors, including Apple, Google and Facebook.

Microsoft’s strategy? Develop new solutions like the Surface Hub that provide enterprise customers what they need to easily embrace common and emerging workplace processes. In the process, leverage the successful, deeply embedded productivity applications that made the company what it is but also place them into innovative new packages and solutions that reflect what Microsoft is becoming.

Whatever becomes of the Surface Hub, one thing seems clear; Microsoft intends to keep a firm hand on its future. By doing so, its competitors will have to work harder than they have ever done before.

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