Touch and Collaborate: The Interactive Display Comes Of Age (Part 2)
A New Hype Cycle Begins, And The Old Hype Cycle Repeats
In order to understand what is happening in the interactive whiteboard (IWB) space today, one only has to go back about 10 years to see what happened with Immersive Telepresence. The parallels are astonishing.
Immersive Telepresence generally describes videoconference systems that use a number of large displays in front of a table that are meant to simulate all parties being in the same room.
At the beginning of the immersive hype cycle, the videoconferencing market had a number of solutions available that were generally perceived to be poor. The reasons for the perception included difficult and non-consistent user interfaces, poor connections between systems, and poor maintenance and management of the endpoints — all problems that were solvable but were usually neglected. There were also niche providers providing immersive systems, but their expense and minimal distribution prevented their popularity.
Then, one large manufacturer (Cisco) decided that the space was ripe for disruption. They built a system (CTS 3000 TelePresence) that was very reliable (simply because it addressed the solvable problems listed above) and put a lot of muscle behind the marketing and distribution of it. While these systems carried a list price of hundreds of thousands of dollars (not even including how much the room remediation would cost), Cisco’s management would often give the units to large customers for free, seeding the market and driving demand for additional endpoints.
Rather than compete against these TelePresence systems and their obvious flaws (expense, technical limitations, practical limitations, limited use cases, etc.) the other manufacturers in the space adopted a “we have one too” stance. (All boats rise with the tide….) Shortly thereafter, immersive telepresence was the thing that everyone had to have. Instead of selling videoconferencing endpoints (bad connotation) for about $20k each, they got behind selling immersive systems (good connotation) for hundreds of thousands each. The sales numbers were staggering — everybody had to have these — along with the expensive management and exchange services needed to connect them.
It took about five or six years for the market to come to its senses and realize some very basic truths:
Immersive telepresence wasn’t “better” than the videoconferencing systems that preceded it. It just utilized better connections, better maintenance, better management, and easier UIs. These could have been applicable to the inexpensive systems all along.
- The immersive nature of the rooms were a terrific benefit in only some very narrow use-cases — for example, when only two locations had groups of less than six people in a meeting for extended periods of time. The rest of the time they were not a good choice of collaboration tool.
Today you will still find immersive systems in use, but they are limited to those applications where they are actually a benefit.
If you look at the IWB space, the parallels to Immersive Telepresence are dead-on:
- The collaboration space included many systems, but most were not perceived well.
- There were a number of IWBs available from niche players, but their complexity and minimal distribution prevented their popularity.
- A large firm (Microsoft) decided that the space was ripe for disruption, and introduced a system that was perceived to resolve the problems (Surface Hub) which carried a very hefty price tag (~$22K for an 85-incn system).
- Rather than compete against the system’s weak points (expense, technical limitations, practical limitations, limited use cases, etc.) the other manufacturers in the space are adopting a “we have one too” stance.
Thusly, the IWB space is poised to explode, with current offerings from existing players now set to compete against new offerings from huge firms such as Google and Cisco. (All boats rise with the tide — or here we go again…)
In addition, many of the new products can be classified as “ecosystem plays.” Because the cost of collaboration hardware is shrinking, the manufacturers realize there isn’t as much profit in selling products as there is in selling services. So the manufacturers of new systems on the market aren’t looking for sales profits as much as they are looking for ongoing revenue in the form of subscriptions. Google’s and Cisco’s products will be less expensive than Microsoft’s recent offering, but they will require a monthly subscription to their platform.
The Pendulum Will Eventually Swing Back
After a few years of industry healthy hype, the IWB market will swing back to focus on the realities of these units’ capabilities. Just as in Immersive Telepresence, the value and use of an IWB is not universal. Or, said another way, a hammer is a great tool, but there are many applications – like cutting glass – where using a hammer is a poor choice. User firms will soon realize the limitations of IWBs (as mentioned before — complex UIs and the fact that people that “don’t get up”) and begin deploying them only in applications where they make sense. These appropriate applications include:
- Engineers – When working on complex drawings, equations, schematics and the like an IWB can support manipulating objects in real-time – and save and easily distribute all work.
- Educators – Whether in a classroom or an enterprise instructional environment, the IWB is ideal for conveying ideas, annotating and highlighting points and presenting information with a flair.
- Designers – IWBs allow visualization of real-time object corrections and manipulation. Do you want to see what the shirt will look like in pink, then blue? Do you want to see it with long sleeves, short sleeves, or sleeveless? IWBs allow for real-time sharing and distribution of all of the changes.
- Architects – How will the new building look with a front garden as opposed to a courtyard? What will a change in the exterior material do to the overall building’s look? What will a different color carpet make the new floor look like? How will more private offices fit on the floor plan? All of these and more can now be manipulated and exhibited in real time instead of waiting for new plans to be printed.
- Team Leaders – If your organization utilizes stand-up meetings in specific rooms or open areas, and uses a person to lead such meetings graphically on a whiteboard, the IWB is an obvious extension of such meetings that can carry the information outside of the location where they are taking place.
The big question of course is, are IWBs useful for general purpose meeting rooms? That’s a tricky one to answer. If they are complex to use and cost tens of thousands of dollars for each room (either in upfront or ongoing costs) then my personal opinion is no. Just like with Immersive Telepresence, the solution is not practical nor scalable. If however the UI is vastly simpler than it has been in the past (think about that iPhone/iPad again) and the costs are far lower than we’re generally seeing today, then yes, in my opinion the IWB becomes like the room’s speakerphone. It may not be used for every meeting, maybe not even for most meetings, but if it is ubiquitous and available when needed — and as easy to use as that phone — it will be a valuable addition to the room.
It also needs to be said that we are no longer in a hardware-centric world. In the past, meeting rooms were defined by the hardware that they sported, such as a videoconference room or a telepresence room – or a room equipped with an IWB. These hardware tools have helped drive productivity within enterprises — but only to a point. Today, instead of creating collaboration systems that users have to conform to when entering a space, best practices indicate that we have to develop environments that will conform to the users and the tools they are already carrying — like smartphones and tablets. Expecting a traditional IWB to meet today’s needs is no longer an optimal strategy. It’s more realistic to work with a software platform that meets the user expectations on their ubiquitous devices, then ensure that the IWB can perform as an extension of them. Many manufacturers/software providers want to get users onto their software ecosystem for that reason. End users however have to be aware of the ongoing costs of that ecosystem. Are you expected to pay for an enterprise license for all your employees? Are you expected to pay monthly fees for each device? Or is the software platform something inexpensive that can be limited to only the users that need it? Additionally, more than just the expense, does the software platform meet the “no instruction needed” iPhone/iPad test?
In Part 3, David breaks down the different classifications of IWBs and the considerations that need to be made to ensure a successful user experience. Check back soon, or….
This blog article was originally published here and is used with permission.