Google made a $5,000 whiteboard — and it’s weirdly fun

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.

Above: TJ Varghese, Jamboard creator, in Google’s NY office.

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.

Above: Jonathan Rochelle, director of product management at Google, demoes the Jamboard.

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.

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Comments

Are there any DIY projects that could do this too? Like, a chromebook-like pc mounted behind a 4KTV with some digitizer tech for tracking input.

I’m imagining going through my company and "retrofitting" offices with 4K TVs instead of whiteboards, each person gets a fully connected jamboard-like display. No need for conference rooms if different people can collaborate with their "whiteboards" for a meeting from their own offices. (We’re an engineering-heavy corp, so there are a lot of dry erase boards, at least one for each office and a few free standing in some open areas).

You could also look at the Surface Hub, I know of one major oil company that’s trialling them in a heavy engineering project over 3 continents. They use a mixture of Surface Pro’s and Hubs to conduct team meetings daily using OneNote/Office and other tools. The Surface Hubs are corralled in the IT Dept and signed out as needed and come on a rolling base to making moving between Depts. easy.

Lets not forget that Microsoft has also made the famous Microsoft Table, I wish the article did not present Google’s product as something conceptually new.

This Google thing is a vertical, and, hence, less ergonomic version of that (the arms will be killing you after a short while), though it is much cheaper.

You’re telling them to look at a device that costs twice as much? MS fans… jeez.

Twice the price but arguably the better product. The Jamboard is like a regular smartboard just made by Google. You gotta remember a lot of the companies paying to get this stuff can afford it. They don’t think of prices as normal consumers do.

The guy wasn’t asking for something that did more. They wanted something that did similar that cost less.

If they’re talking DIY, they’re looking for something they can do in bulk.

They don’t think of prices as normal consumers do.

As someone who helps with IT in a 150 person corporation (not as enormous yes, but still reasonable size) across five offices, I can say with certainty, cost still matters, and you can see blatant upscaling in costs in the business sector that make purchases difficult for companies of our size.

Bingo. I can see getting a cheap OEM or similar 4KTV, a standard wall-mount, and a custom Raspberry Pi kit for under $1000 and may be able to get most of the way there. Just need a clear way to track input, and that means either IR tracking of the input device (like the popular WiiMote-hack or just buy one http://a.co/femCpty) or some kind of touch-sensor / digitizer near the panel. I know there are open source projects for Raspberry Pi, so there may be some way to reach Jamboard/Surface-like functionality for significantly less (and probably use the same apps, like Hangouts and Docs/Drive)

ran out of time to edit that link. I guess there are a few IR Pens already available
http://a.co/eC6M43F
http://a.co/femCpty

You do realize that this has a $600 per year subscription cost right?

What company do your work for where your IT procurement team or CTO would value the $5000 up front cost more than the ongoing support cost after year 6? Hypothetically, if my company were to get two per office (only equipping about 1/4 conference rooms per regional office) after year 6 that would be 7200 per year just for a subscription service.

On top of how limited this is it makes even less sense (surface hub could replace a computer, give you more flexibility for telepresence setups, generally anything else that could be hooked up to a computer)

"They wanted something that did similar that cost less."

A Whiteboard?

I would love to see Google take the tech behind this and create a full blown OneNote alternative!

For me Keep is too basic.

Clearly you’ve not paid attention to nearly a decade of Google platform products. They are all one-trick ponies (e.g. Chromebook, Android, Chromecast) which do an exceptionally limited subset of computer functions despite sufficient computational power to do more. Every more generalized device Google has come up with gets abandoned, such as SmartTV which was a full Android device, and was crippled incrementally by way of Nexus Q into the Chromecast.

Even Android phones have a severe lack of interoperability and expandability. There were what, two attempts at smartphone convertibles with the Motorola Atrix series, well before Android was a mature product or mobile phone SoCs could really drive a reasonable desktop / laptop experience.

The fact that Google is getting press for a poor attempt to get into the Smartboard market is a tad sad, and despite the pricing difference, the main driver for Microsoft’s offering is multi-user collaboration. As for a whiteboard for online meetings, a regular Surface Pro device is pretty awesome.

Every more generalized device Google has come up with gets abandoned

This would be my worry. There is no guarantee that Google will still be supporting this thing 5 years from now.

They don’t have a great track record supporting products that aren’t their core business.

What a sad delusional rant. It’s evident you have an issue with Google, but there’s no need to start lying. Besides, no one wants a $10,000 Microsoft Surface Hub that will have ransomware on it sooner or later.

Who is really delusional here? Surface Hub can’t get normal ransomware as it doesn’t run any legacy applications btw.

As opposed to an Android device that comes with Slurpware by design?

Can’t believe there was no mention of Cisco’s SparkBoard. It is expensive like Google and Microsoft’s offering, but it is tightly connected into their entire collaboration suite and has really great audio/video capabilities.

Saw a demo and I was really impressed at how this connected both the people and the board together…of course, I still don’t have $5K to buy it.

Cisco’s Spark Board is pretty cool. At the end of the day it all depends on which ecosystem you’ve heavily invested in. The Spark Board is gonna be a better investment than the Jamboard though especially since they cost around the same for the 55" model not to mention the Spark Board is 4k to boot. The only downside is Cisco’s service fees are much higher.

The only downside is Cisco’s service fees are much higher.

Service fees are usually more important than the hardware costs over the life of this kind of equipment (8-10 or so years).

There seemed to be some pretty decent input lag.

Looks like Microsoft got Jammed.

Google is microsofting too hard.

Like Surface Hub, It looks like a big dependency which is buying 55 inch screen. I fully understand that one of the main features of this is a virtual whiteboard so that it needs a space and a gigantic HW to replace a legacy white board. But there are many similar solutions from beam projectors. Also, I think for users who are working at home, they should have some space to facilitate all things at their home. By the way, there is a good alternative, knowlounges.com which is a mobile app. No need to consider an additional HW and some space. It is really cool.

We have projector solutions like the Hitachi Smartboard and they are even more expensive that these boards and the experience is terrible.

So just like the Microsoft Surface Hub, but much lamer. Sort of like Google Apps is a much lamer version of Office 365….

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