Google Jamboard Is a Fresh Take on Smart Boards

By Features PCmag

There is nothing better for collaboration than to huddle around a whiteboard and mind-map your way around a problem. Artistic ability aside, the process of writing large on a shared space can be incredibly useful. But when it comes to digitizing, sharing, and integrating the results into our business processes, the whiteboard remains stubbornly analog. Most of us just grab a picture of the results with a smartphone and move on. Google's new Jamboard might just change that.

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The Jamboard, which arrives in the first quarter of 2017, is designed for businesses, although it could certainly have some great educational applications as well. Juan Martinez and I recently spent some time using it; check out his excellent hands on for how the device works and compares to competitors like the Microsoft Surface Hub.

We also got the chance to talk to Jonathan Rochelle, director of product for Google's G Suite, who explained his vision for the device and the future of G Suite, which itself was creating limits.

"We were putting people in this productivity box from the start. You have to choose right away are you using a doc, a spreadsheet, or something else," Rochelle says. "And then immediately someone would start a document, and that might limit creativity."

When you add in video conferencing, the available tools were even more constricted. "We have seen people stop using the whiteboard entirely because they are in a video conference," Rochelle said. "That is something we wanted to solve, and I think we have solved it."

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The Jamboard looks like any other 55-inch TV, albeit one mounted on a cool stand and wrapped in red plastic. If Yves Behar designed a smart whiteboard, this would be it. There is a stylus and an eraser; although you can also just use your finger to erase the board.

The purpose of the Jamboard is pretty straightforward: provide a big touch-enabled display panel, enable multi-user collaboration, and then export the results to an easy-to-share digital format. Lots of vendors have tried, but executing this vision has proved difficult.

Microsoft, for example, started shipping its Surface Hub systems just a few months ago. The Windows-based touch-screen display features a 2K resolution and price tag that starts at $9,000. It features a built-in Skype client, infinite whiteboard space, and a Web browser. It is a pretty great collaboration tool, but there are shades of Windows through the product. You need to log into the device to begin a session, using video conferencing requires a Skype for Business account, and getting files on and off the Surface Hub is a multi-step process. In the end, Surface Hub excels more as a presentation system than a collaboration tool.

The Jamboard, by contrast, seems built for collaboration first. Users can participate in the session using a custom app on the phone or tablet. And yes, it supports iOS, although not Windows. When in range of a Jamboard, the owner can establish a session and invite members with a few simple clicks. Using the built-in HD camera and speakers, multiple users can participate in a Google Hangout from within the interface.

To be sure, all that collaboration can get messy. In one of the demos, at least six people were working on the same "jam" at the same time. As an observer, it was hard to track who was doing what. Just as we had to learn not to talk to each other on conference calls and share our screens in Hangouts, the Jamboard requires some adjustments to our work habits. Even so, the seamless digital capture seems worth the effort; every mark on the board gets saved to the cloud.

One of the things that impressed me most was just how indifferently Jamboard treated different types of media. Want to import a doc and make comments on it? Just drag it over from your Drive. Need to show a location? Open up Maps, cut out an image, and drop it into your workspace. Need to title a slide? Just write it out and the handwriting recognition will turn it into formal type. Even my chicken-scratch was initially converted into letter-case. And whenever you pause for a second, the entire jam gets uploaded and stored to your Drive.

I haven't spent enough time with the device to endorse it one way or the other, but as a whiteboard fan, it certainly feels like something I would use. And at about $6,000 with the stand, it will be priced relatively competitively for this smart whiteboard space. The Jamboard takes document sharing and video conferencing up a notch by adding a tactile, organic interface and seamless integration with Google Drive.

Despite its grand ambitions, Google is also paying attention to the smaller details. "The stylus is not active, it is a passive stylus," Rochelle said with pride. "So it isn't going to cost you $100 to replace."

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.