Microsoft and Google have both gotten into the interactive whiteboard market this year, creating new competition for the largest and most entrenched player, Smart Technologies, a Canadian firm recently acquired by Foxconn.
“The last piece of equipment in the office and classroom that hasn’t made it into the modern age is the whiteboard,” said Smart Technologies chief technology officer Warren Barkley. “We, along with Microsoft and Google, see this as an opportunity to move that static, physically isolated content into the wider world.”
Though commonplace today, the standard whiteboard is an innovation itself. Popularized in the late 1980s and 1990s, the whiteboard has, in many instances, replaced the dusty blackboard that always left hands, clothes and floors coated in a thin layer of chalk residue.
The digital whiteboard is a more modern invention and it continues to evolve.
Smart Technologies takes credit for creating the first interactive whiteboard in 1991. Barkley said those devices were primarily large display devices that used projectors and had maybe one or two touch points. Today, interactive whiteboards come with high-tech LED touch screens whose ease of use more closely resembles a tablet computer.
That evolution has come with fits and starts, he said, and new arrivals could advance it further.
Google’s Jamboard is a 55-inch, touch screen monitor that connects to the cloud and taps into Google’s G Suite of productivity apps, including Google Drive, Docs and Calendar. Equipped with machine learning technology, the board is marketed as a tool for companies to make information gathering and brainstorming more seamless.
As senior product manager T.J. Varghese said succinctly in a recent blog post: “At Google, we’ve set out to redefine meetings.”
Varghese wrote in an email that the company will first offer Jamboard to the roughly 2 million customers who subscribe to its workplace software, and it will review how those businesses put the board to use before selling it to other corporate customers.
It’s unclear whether Jamboard will have a meaningful impact on Google’s income. It strikes a different tone from the company’s other products, which are generally lower cost and marketed to the masses, because the electronic whiteboard is distinctly aimed at a business crowd with a hefty I.T. budget.
Google also faces stiff competition in the workplace technology market, said Vanessa Thompson, a research analyst at IDC, a market research firm specializing in technology.
In March, Microsoft began shipping its own interactive whiteboard, called Surface Hub. Much as Jamboard integrates with Google’s other products, Surface Hub integrates with Microsoft’s established slate of workplace software, including Skype and Microsoft Office. The 55-inch Surface Hub sells for $8,999, and the 84-inch version goes for $21,999.
“At the very highest level, I would say almost every company today is going through some form of digital transformation,” said Julia Atalla, senior director of Microsoft’s Windows and Devices group. “Medium- to large-size businesses, they’re looking at ways they can innovate faster.”
Interactive whiteboard purveyors say their products meet that need. Collaboration has become harder in office environments where some employees work remotely or travel often, and information is increasingly stored in digital formats and shared through email. Having a digital interface that all workers in a meeting can connect with to share information, video conference and otherwise engage makes those gatherings more productive, they say.
But I.T. trends could also make the large capital investment needed to purchase the boards harder to justify, Thompson of IDC said.
“There are some macro trends impacting the way we work, like decentralization in large organizations, small team-oriented work, personal productivity tools augmenting tools provided by organizations,” Thompson said. “These behavioral themes mean that workers are just as likely to use
personal tools to share and collaborate as they are a space in the office.”
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.