Working in a modern office can be pretty strange. I go hours without speaking to my co-workers, yet I'm in constant communication with them through a chat app. I know some of my colleagues only as digital avatars, and my meetings are sometimes filled with more faces on a screen than people in chairs surrounding me.
This is the state of office collaboration in 2017, and in many ways it's sorely lacking.
Google has been improving this space for years with tools like Docs and Drive, and it's now taking a step into the physical world with an alternative to Microsoft's digital whiteboard, the Surface Hub. Google's take is called the Jamboard. It's a digital, internet-connected “whiteboard” that looks like a blown-up children’s tablet, and we got a chance to test it out ahead of its launch today. The product is expensive at nearly $5,000 (though $4,000 less than Microsoft's Surface Hub), and it only includes relatively basic functionality. But the Jamboard already feels like a fun, useful way to work with co-workers who can't be there in person.
The basics of the Jamboard are just like a whiteboard. You walk up to it, pick up a pen, and start writing. But that's where the similarities stop. The Jamboard is really a 55-inch 4K screen. And it isn't just for one person to work on — everything written on one Jamboard can be mirrored across dozens of other Jamboards, as well as computer and tablet screens. The people on the other side of those devices can work on the very same board, too.
The product is dead simple to get started with and is surprisingly fun to use. You just start writing, and your text or scribbles appear for everyone else. There are tools to help you draw shapes and sketch in different sizes and colors, and there is some truly excellent handwriting recognition that was even able to make sense of my borderline illegible markings. I may well have offended the Jamboard team when I was more impressed with the board’s handwriting recognition, which was made by another group inside Google, than the rest of the product. It's really that good.
Brainstorming on a whiteboard really doesn’t work if you have remote colleagues — I can think of very few times we’ve tried to do it here at The Verge. But it’s pretty easy to imagine that, with a couple of Jamboards, employees in multiple offices could start handwriting their own thoughts on the board as ideas get thrown around. And remote co-workers would be able to view the presentation on the web or add their own thoughts through the Jamboard tablet app.
The Jamboard also has some much more obviously digital features, like the ability to pull in photos and website screenshots, to add emoji and other stickers, and to take pictures with a built-in webcam. (It can also be used for video chatting… and selfies.) These features are pretty simple right now, for better or worse. It quickly becomes apparent that the Jamboard isn’t going to be used for anything close to the final, presentable work you get in something like Docs or PowerPoint — it’s good at one thing: creating what are essentially big collages.
Google is already considering ways to update the Jamboard to make it integrate with other tools that workplaces rely on. This could mean the entire Jamboard switching over to a professional app, like Trello, or it could mean new tools and widgets inside the existing Jamboard experience. “We’ve been hearing of partners who are interested to integrate with the Jamboard app itself, so being part of delivering a component to what would be brainstorming,” says TJ Varghese, who led creation of the Jamboard.
The Jamboard’s simplicity is also what sets it apart from Microsoft’s direct challenger: the Surface Hub — its own giant, collaborative display. I asked Jonathan Rochelle, director of product management at Google and the co-founder of Docs, how he sees Google’s product standing out from Microsoft’s, and he said it came down to the fact that the Jamboard isn’t meant to be a computer.
Microsoft’s product is much more expensive, with a 55-inch 1080p model selling for $8,999 and an 84-inch 4K model selling for $21,999. The big difference is that Microsoft’s product is essentially just a giant Windows all-in-one PC capable of running apps and doing the many complicated things that Windows PCs can do, whereas Google’s product only runs a single app — it’d be like buying a laptop that only runs Google Docs.
“Jamboard is not meant be a computer on your wall. It is definitely a collaborative whiteboard, and Surface Hub, I think, is more angled at, 'this is a Windows device on your wall so you can do other things on it,” Rochelle says. “If you have a Jamboard on the wall and a Surface Hub next to it, people would be able to go up to the Jamboard and use it right away, and I would challenge that that's not true with a computer on the wall.”
There’s a good argument to be made that the Jamboard’s laser-focus is a big limitation, but those limitations are part of what makes it so simple and immediately easy to use. Even so, I found myself wishing it had some more complexity, especially when it comes to video conferencing.
Although though there's a built-in webcam, video chatting on the Jamboard is a strange experience. When it's brought into a video conference, the Jamboard has to pick between one of two modes: broadcasting video from its webcam, or broadcasting what’s on the board. It can’t do both at once, which means you can’t see a person and what they’re writing at the same time. Varghese says this is because Google thought it would be odd to show people right up against the board, with the camera shooting the tops of everyone’s heads. So instead, you're supposed to set up another camera elsewhere in the room and use that to actually see each other.
To test all this out, I called up my colleague Lauren Goode, who's based in San Francisco. Lauren appeared in a small video chat box in the top corner of the screen, but for most of our conversation, she couldn’t actually see my face because the Jamboard was set to broadcast what I was writing.
“It was weird that I couldn't see you at all once I switched to that mode,” Lauren says. “I wish there was a way to see both you, or the people participating, and the whiteboard at the same time. It seems like you'd want to see each other's expressions or body language, too.”
Being able to see your co-worker writing on the board could make the experience feel more personal and collaborative. And, like Lauren points out, it could provide important conversational cues, like whether your colleague is about to write something or is looking back to you for input. While the interaction is functional without video, it felt strange knowing that Lauren was stuck watching a screen and waiting with no clues as to whether I was paying any attention.
The camera’s video quality wasn’t particularly impressive either, and Lauren said audio from the Jamboard sounded quiet and distant — though Varghese said this was a bug that would be fixed before launch.
The Jamboard feels like a missed opportunity to chip away at the miserable experience that is video conferencing. It’s not clear if Google has plans to tackle that later — it might make sense, given that it already has Hangouts — but Varghese indicated that Google has bigger plans for office hardware than just the Jamboard.
“We are investing in spending a lot of time in communications and in meeting spaces and in collaboration,” say Varghese. “So I think it's safe to say that, yes, this space will see a lot of activity.”
Varghese said that video conferencing and working with documents are two areas that Google is interested in exploring. He also said there’s more room to bring Google’s cloud intelligence down to office products.
Everyone outside of Google who I discussed the Jamboard with immediately asked about whether the product would work for education, too. And while Rochelle indicates that Google would be happy to sell Jamboards to schools, he says it isn’t really designed for them.
"The problem we have is, we don't think it's a presentation device," Rochelle says. "It's not something you'd put at the front of a classroom and have a teacher point and click through the web. That's how a lot of the current education projects are aimed at schools ... that's not the intention of this product."
On top of that, the Jamboard's price is likely prohibitive. Google’s success in the education market thus far has come from its focus on promoting super-cheap Chromebooks, which usually cost under $300. The Jamboard costs almost 20 times as much for a single unit and a year of service.
Sales of the Jamboard begin today in the US, with the product selling for $4,999, plus an additional $600-per-year service fee for every single unit. If you want a rolling stand to put one on, instead of just a wall mount, you’re looking at another $1,349 (though those last two prices are discounted through September).
After playing with the Jamboard, I’ve come away with mixed feelings. I think it’s really unlikely that the Jamboard is going to revolutionize anyone’s workflow — this is, after all, mostly just a whiteboard. And while a whiteboard that works across the country with multiple people drawing on it and adding webpages probably sounds like a dream to middle managers everywhere, the product’s price makes it hard to justify for all but the most sensationally funded tech startups. In the future, if the Jamboard could replace a video conferencing screen, too, then maybe it’d be more appealing.
So what we have is a really expensive tablet that mostly just does a single thing. But that said, it’s a really really weirdly fun tablet that just does a single thing. And look, if my office wants to buy one, it’s not like it’s coming directly out of my wallet. That’s not a good reason to get one, but I certainly wouldn’t mind using it during my next meeting.