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Surface Hub: A Howard Hughes folly, or a cunning Post It Note killer?

Behold, a new platform from Microsoft

Analysis Microsoft's Surface Hub is finally shipping, almost eight months after Microsoft began to take orders for the kit.

To call Microsoft’s a electronic whiteboard Surface Hub a “boutique” product doesn’t really do the ambitious project justice.

It’s hard not to think of the first fruit of the Perceptive Pixel acquisition as a kind of a Howard Hughes-style folly, like the reclusive millionaire's H-4 flying boat.

We’ll soon find out, as the Surface Hub is finally shipping, almost eight months after Microsoft began to take orders for the kit. Just who will spaff £22,000 on a vast electronic whiteboard in an era of hot-desking and home working, when meeting rooms are going out of style?

Microsoft announced the shipping news with a vintage piece of contemporary Microsoft-speak:

"We are releasing a team-empowering solution that will make meetings more productive, modernize workflows, and let people engage with data much better," according to the blog.

Let’s attempt to answer the question posed above, namely “who will buy a Surface Hub?” Well, some meeting rooms are showpieces of corporate prestige – that’s the addressable market for this product, and Microsoft falls into that not surprisingly. In this market, £22,000 isn’t actually an exorbitant price tag. And there’s a cheaper Hub that’s a souped-up, touch sensitive HD TV.

But many more meeting rooms are very much not showcases. They’re patchworks of old and new telecom conference kit – Polycom is the market leader here, and earns around £1bn a year – and commodity TVs. And … a lot of wires and dongles. The Hub promise is that eventually these TVs and wires and speakerphones need to be replaced, and a Surface Hub is capable of replacing a lot of them.

"Wait, who's that creepy guy? He's not my doctor!"

If you’re going to invest in a folly, I can think of much worse ones than Surface Hub – but not for that reason. It at least makes as much sense as spaffing R&D investment on smartwatches or a phone platform. And not just because I'm keen to seen Microsoft doing more crazy hardware experiments.

The corporate meeting room is an odd market because rather than digital “disrupting” analogue, it’s been the other way around. This is a market that has already been disrupted by paper; nothing's more analogue than paper.

Over the past decade the fad of sticking pieces of small pieces paper to noticeboards has leaped from software development (where it was part of the Agile cult) to general management practice, and beyond. The Post It Note assault is now almost beyond any kind of community collaboration. Classrooms aren't safe either.

Microsoft Surface Hub could help digitise important Post It™ Note-based corporate communications, like this

The challenge for Surface Hub is to prove that “digital” can add some value and smarts over colourful Post It Notes. It doesn’t do so right away. Yes, it’s a new “platform” for Universal Windows Apps, which doesn’t have much built in other than Skype and One Note. (Both of which run well on a £100 phone). But where do all those Post It Notes go? Do you have to keep referring to the same physical space to check the project of a progress in 2016?

The Surface Hub seems to have the input side nailed down – it can detect ten fingers from ten different people at once. It’s the rest that Microsoft (or some other, ambitious, do-it-all meeting room hub needs to address.

From the start, Outlook displayed simple notes as Post Its but this was just a visual gimmick; another way of representing a 2D list of strings. OneNote can be kludged to “do sticky notes”, but they’re not appropriate for viewing in a room or group working. Thereafter, the software can’t do much with them. You can’t easily incorporate them into a workflow, or push them out to mobile devices, for example. OneNote’s clunky book and pages metaphor just isn’t appropriate here.

Today, corporate meeting rooms are often messy rubbish dumps of sticky notes and curled up paper over which brains were once stormed. Imagine if you could do a bit more with that paper. Use the 3M temple for project management and tracking (like Trello does today), and analysing previous projects.

Howard Hughes’ obsession did eventually fly – just – but failed because older technology could do the job cheaper, and newer designs incorporating jet engines and aluminium fuselages would eventually do the job better. The H-4 was an expensive folly that was out of time. Maybe the Surface Hub is too. I don't necessarily agree.

I'd caution that Microsoft needs to become better at appreciating its legacy assets – and less of an amnesiac. It invites people touse its tools then scuppers them. Ask someone using Outlook Tasks how that's going on Windows 10. The phones don't even sync Exchange Tasks badly any more – they don't sync Tasks at all.

If there’s one thing the computer industry hasn’t been very good at, it’s replacing paper. ®

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