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Opinion: Rob Lane on Microsoft Surface Hub

Shipping may be delayed, but Microsoft Surface Hub continues to turn heads.

The corporate AV market is currently experiencing significant developments, in both technology and the way technology is deployed. Indeed, the sector is arguably leading the way with technology consumption, with huge tech brands such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft committed to corporate AV solutions.

The latter has, of course, recently announced delays in the introduction of its Surface Hub ‘collaboration device’, despite taking orders from 1 July. Rumours are that Microsoft has run into a few manufacturing problems as a result of high demand, but this is just reading between the lines of the company’s delay announcement: “Based on the early interest we see, we’re tuning our manufacturing process to prepare for production at broader scale. To do this, we are adjusting our product roll-out schedule.”

Whatever the real reasons behind the delay, what’s now certain is that we won’t see Surface Hub in corporate meeting rooms until Q1 2016 at the earliest. “We will not start shipping on September 1 now,” Brian Hall, general manager for Surface, explained in his blog post. “We’ll have more details on our updated shipment schedule in early August. In the meantime, we will continue to take pre-orders.”

True to his word, the blog post was updated on August 12, confirming that the devices won’t begin shipping until January 2016. It continues to be a long road to market for this product, especially if you see its gestation as being around the time that Microsoft bought Perceptive Pixel in 2012. Regardless, of the delays though, the corporate AV market is certainly excited about Surface Hub, with Simon Fagan, director at European distribution partner Maverick UK, calling it “revolutionary”.

The new 55in and 84in touchscreen solution has been designed for today’s tech-savvy workplaces and is said to combine all conference room components into one collaborative device. According to Microsoft, it adds “the best group productivity and collaboration device to the most productive personal devices in the world”.

Utilising applications such as Windows 10, Office and Skype for Business, Surface Hub is designed around a highly responsive screen built for ink and touch. Both versions are integrated with optically bonded displays capable of detecting 100 points of multi-touch and up to three simultaneous pen inputs, as well as dual 1080p front-facing video cameras, and a four-element microphone array that detects and follows voices to eliminate background noise during videoconferencing sessions.

“Microsoft Surface Hub is a fundamental step change in integrated technology,” Fagan told me. “It’s revolutionary and will allow videoconferencing and sharing to screen from home work stations to become commonplace, thanks to the delivery of full communication and collaboration functionality through the highest quality touch interface.”

This perhaps understandably enthusiastic response from one of Microsoft’s chosen European distributors is echoed by James Shanks, international managing director, AVI-SPL, who had this to say: “We have waited a few years in our industry for the next big thing; the Microsoft Surface Hub is it. It will be disruptive to the current attitudes and use of technology in various environments and the manufacturers that had provided solutions in those areas previously. It is the solution to a number of challenges that existed in the collaboration space; they have even given us answers to ways of working that hadn’t been asked yet.”

And, predictably of course, comments from within Microsoft itself underline the revolutionary nature of Surface Hub: “While there are a number of devices designed to improve our productivity as individuals, there has yet to be a device that is truly optimised for a group of people to use together – designed not just for what we need to do, but how we want to work. Until now,” Mike Angiulo, corporate vice president, Microsoft Devices, is quoted as saying. “Just as the PC revolutionised productivity for individuals, Surface Hub will transform the way groups of people work together.”

That latter statement might be stretching things somewhat, but the corporate AV market is certainly ripe for a solution which integrates seamlessly into the workplace, and Surface Hub is well positioned to tick a lot of boxes for a lot of corporate technology specifiers.

“It’s a game changer,” continued Fagan. “A complete solution for businesses that wish to reduce the management costs of AV and VC systems by combining conference room components into one collaborative device.

“It is built upon features that make it unlike any in the market, including the digital whiteboard experience, real-time collaboration and meeting interface.”

This broad church, one-stop appeal is certainly what’s driving interest, thus delaying shipping. Surface Hub provides great value for businesses by combining key collaborative scenarios, including general communications, visualisation brainstorming, remote collaboration and data insights.

“When Microsoft decides to get involved in a new sector of the marketplace you know the status quo has just been changed forever,” Shanks told me.

Revolutionary. Game-changer. Next big thing. Fundamental step change. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out if these accolades are accurate.