Google is trying to reinvent the whiteboard

Jamboard is a cloud service and 55-inch display aimed at enhancing collaboration

What's big, red, and supposed to be the next big thing in workplace collaboration? Google's new Jamboard, a massive touch display and accompanying cloud service that's supposed to help business users brainstorm together.

Jamboard works like a digital whiteboard, letting users sketch out ideas, attach digital sticky notes, plus bring in content from the web into a single, constantly updating workspace. People can use Jamboard to collaborate both on the 55-inch mega-display of the same name, or using accompanying tablet and smartphone apps for iOS and Android.

The Jamboard is available in private beta for business customers of Google's G Suite productivity service offering starting Tuesday. The company expects to make it generally available early next year.

For companies that have already invested in using G Suite and want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on bringing digital whiteboards into their workplaces, Jamboard seems like an interesting option.

The hardware is slickly-designed, and Google's functionality feels like it could be a major enhancement over analog brainstorming.

But Google is asking companies to make a big commitment to Jamboard. The company isn't revealing final pricing for the appliance yet, but expects its hardware to cost less than US$6,000 at release.

That means a rollout of multiple Jamboards in an organization will likely cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

jamboard tools Google

Google's Jamboard ships with a pair of styluses and an eraser that doubles as a cleaning cloth.

For that price, companies get a fairly robust hardware package. The Jamboard boasts a 4K display, and comes with a pair of high-precision styluses for sketching and writing, along with a digital eraser that also doubles as a cleaning cloth. In addition, users can also touch the screen with their fingers and manipulate items on the screen with multi-touch gestures.

Jamboard also supports technology that will turn handwriting drawn on the screen into text, and convert drawn shapes into digital ones. It's a way to dress up the work that people are doing on the device.

All Jams are backed up to one user's Google Drive account, which means that in the event the Jamboard appliance loses power, users' work is backed up to the cloud.

The Jamboard appliance can support the full Hangouts experience using its built-in camera, speakers and microphone. That means users could interact with a call that has up to 50 participants on it while whiteboarding at the same time. That turns the device into a roving collaboration hub, which could be useful.

Users will also be able to interact with the full Jamboard canvas using the tablet apps that Google has developed for Android and iOS. That way, people who don't have control of the mega-display can still contribute fully to the conversation at hand, whether they're in the room or working remotely.

People can also add content to a Jam using the Jamboard phone app for iPhone and Android. It won't give users the full ability to edit what people are working on, but will make it easier for them to do things like add outside content and sticky notes to what's being discussed.

For those folks who just want to see what's going on, they'll be able to tune into a Jam via Chrome on a PC or Mac.

In the view of Gartner Research Director Adam Preset, Jamboard's impact on the market will be similar to Microsoft's Surface Hub. That product, which is a large touchscreen display designed for Office 365 users to collaborate live in person and over the internet, is taking share away from existing digital whiteboard vendors in the enterprise. He sees the Jamboard as playing a similar role.

"The organizations that have already committed to Google, and have not found a sufficiently useful digital whiteboarding solution that works well with Google, will be quite satisfied," Preset said in an interview. "This appliance in and of itself, however, will not drag more business over to the larger Google G Suite service."

In many ways, Jamboard feels like a quintessential Google product -- slickly designed with features that are futuristic and forward-thinking, and forged in the crucible of the company's own rigorous needs. But like the company's other offerings in that vein, there's still an open question about whether its customers are interested in or ready for the future.

After all, this feels a bit like the second coming of Google Wave, a before-its-time collaboration product that let people work together on constantly evolving, live-updating digital whiteboards (without a physical component). Wave launched in 2009 and shut down in 2012, due to lack of interest.

What's more, there's still a lot more to be done for Jamboard to evolve as a product. Right now, the service doesn't support rewinding a Jam to see how it evolved over time, or embedding video in a Jam. All of that's on the roadmap for the product's future, according to representatives from the company.

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