I grew up in a home with a blackboard. I remember its key role in my learning the home phone number. It was still there when I moved out and probably still is.
Manufacturing of blackboards in the U.S. began in the 1840s. I’m sure the process has changed, but how we use these boards has seen very little change. Green colored boards appeared in the 1960s followed soon after by dry-erase whiteboards.
These types of traditional boards are indeed collaboration devices. They are ubiquitous in classrooms, meeting rooms, and in many homes here and abroad.
Many believe it is time to replace the board with new technology, but that won’t be easy. Traditional boards (of all colors) still have a strong value proposition: effective, cheap, long lasting, no training, low TCO, and virtually zero usage and training costs.
Yet, these traditional boards do have a vulnerability. They are about the only remaining analog device used in an otherwise digital environment - especially regarding collaboration. The traditional board presents challenges for both remote and local participants.
The remote issue is obvious with the rise of audio, video, and web technologies that effectively neutralizes distance for teams. Remote participants can neither see what’s on the board nor contribute to it. This should be trivial, but it is not.
Free-hand drawing is surprisingly effective at ideation and communications. Many of us were drawing before walking or talking. Keyboards deny us this basic form of communication. The very reason traditional boards are so popular is because they are so easy and intuitive.
Traditional boards also pose problems for meeting participants in the same room. That’s because collaboration doesn’t always start from a blank canvas. Presenting content has been solved with projectors and displays, but co-creating, group ideation, and co-editing is still more likely to get done with a marker than a stylus. The traditional boards work great, until we resort to a smartphone camera to “digitize” the results. There has to be a better way.
The electronic whiteboard has been around for a while and it’s gradually working its way from classroom to enterprise video collaboration environments. In 2013, Microsoft introduced third-party Lync Room System (LRS) solutions. It has since been revised with the Microsoft-branded Surface Hub based on Windows 10.
There are several all-in-one video room and board solutions on the market. Zoom introduced its integrated solution earlier this year. Google announced its Jamboard just last week. The all-in-one approach combines the touch-display, camera, sound, and network into a single, group video conferencing solution. They are suitable extensions of an existing video conferencing solution and generally most appropriate for small to medium rooms.
As with other all-in-one solutions, these boards tend to favor simplicity for capability. They solve a specific problem, but introduce many more. This can make it difficult to actually remove that traditional board.
For example, a whiteboard stays “on” and doesn’t forget until erased. Most of these all-in-ones don’t work that way. Instead they time-out, lock-down, and revert to a new meeting mode. You can’t write on the board something like “meeting moved to down the hall.” I never appreciated persistence-until-erased as a feature until it was gone. Sure, content can be created and saved, but that’s not the same as reliably displayed.
SMART’s Kapp solution offers an interesting solution with real dry-erase markers and a real whiteboard. It captures, shares and digitizes board content through a paired smartphone and app. It’s a clever whiteboard upgrade, but not quite the right device for enterprise digital transformation – though highly recommended for home, SMB and prosumer applications.
The enterprise board still needs to evolve – beyond the all-in-ones. I’m not certain yet what the ideal solution looks like. Here are some of the issues:
- Video Conferencing: I’m not convinced the room camera should be in the board. I find this to be awkward regardless of what side of the camera I’m on. Several current video solutions are designed to work with real boards, and capture someone writing on it. This doesn’t quite fit the current video + presentation format in most video conferencing solutions. Also, since the electronic version of a whiteboard is a big light, it can turn presenters into silhouettes.
- The real power of the electronic whiteboard is co-collaboration, or enabling remote participants to visually interact with whatever is on the board. Realistically this means remote participants are using touch-screens. The challenge here is that most of us don’t have suitable touch-enabled devices. Tablets seem to have peaked, and touch-screen PC/laptops are just emerging. Apple still doesn’t make one. Unfortunately, smartphones are too small to be very practical.
- Screen sharing has become overly complex in the past few years. Ten years ago it was pretty easy to share via VGA cable. VGA has since been replaced by multiple sizes of Display Port, DVI, and HDMI ports. HDMI was looking good, but newer laptops are moving to USB-C. Wireless options are plentiful, but not practical for 4K.
- Sound is an issue too. The all-in-ones have a clear advantage as they also provide the microphone and sound, but many rooms have superior separate solutions for sound. So the future boards will need to integrate into a larger A/V solution.
- Saving content – this should be simple with something like a JPG or PDF format, but that won’t necessarily capture the act of creation. There’s also the issue of getting the saved file from board to other devices.
Microsoft’s solutions can save content directly to OneNote, but not everyone uses OneNote. Google introduced a file format for its board called JAM, but it only works with G-Suite.
The all-in-ones are perfectly fine, but I think they are a stepping stone. As a result, traditional boards will continue to thrive which is at odds with the trend of everything becoming digital.
There’s pent-up demand for broader solutions for visual collaboration. We need to explode the all-in-one into separate, optimized components without introducing complexity. The question is will it come from incumbent video vendors, or from outside companies that see an opportunity to disrupt collaboration?