Google and Cisco Are Trying a Digital Whiteboard Again, But Free Apps Are Fierce Competition

The digital whiteboard could offer solutions for businesses.

They’re supposed to make you want to reach right out and touch them. They’re supposed to be as easy and as intuitively tactile as a child finger-painting on a massive canvas.

Digital whiteboard technology, however, has yet to win over the small business audience, and it certainly hasn’t established itself as a must-have item for the modern video conferencing suite.

And time may be running out.

Video communication giants Google and Cisco will both unveil new, relatively cheap whiteboard hardware devices this year, but they’ll do so in competition with a growing number of whiteboard software apps that cost only a few dollars a month and fit right into most video calling platforms.

The two big tech players are trying to find a market for enterprise-level tech within the smaller end of the business community, but they may find the DIY approach to be stiff competition.

Whiteboard Video Calling

Digital whiteboards have been with us for some time now, and they do pretty much what it says on the box. They turn the decades-old marker and plastic whiteboard into a digital tool that can be shared across devices, displayed on large HD screens, saved as a computer file, and operated by multiple users at the same time.

Typically, though, they’ve been pitched as part of an overall in-room video conferencing suite, a complex and expensive system that requires expert setup and maintenance, something like this early Polycom offering.

What both Google and Cisco are hoping to achieve is plug and play simplicity that leans on our familiarity with tablet computing. Their new offerings are far more like giant iPads than they are in-room video conferencing suites, with price tags half the size of more established models.

Cisco will get the first go at this new digital whiteboard middle ground with its Spark Board, which should be available by the end of February–although Microsoft’s Surface Hub has been around since 2015, albeit at a slightly higher price range. The Spark Board features wireless connectivity to smartphones, tablets, and laptops, and includes all the drawing, design, and remote video calling capabilities a digital whiteboard needs to possess. Oddly, it also makes little marker-on-board squeaks in time with human interaction.

It’s ready to go right out of the box, retails for $5,000, and requires a monthly subscription fee of $199 for tech support and upgrades. Google’s competitor, the Jam Board, is expected to arrive by the end of 2017, and looks very similar.

One Big Touchscreen Tablet

The Jam Board bears more than a passing resemblance to the Spark Board, although its functionality will be closely tied up in the Google Drive family of docs, Hangouts, and workflows.

It, too, promises the hands-on experience of writing, drawing, and erasing digital information directly to a shareable screen (no word on squeaky sound effects), and its $6,000 price tag is in line with Cisco’s effort, and around a third the cost of a Surface Pro.

What neither of these models offer, however, is much sympathy for the off-site, remote callers in a video conference. Those big, 4K graphics may be impressive in-room, but they’ll only render to the size of the receiver’s setup on the other end of the call.

And this is why both are vulnerable to competition from in-platform apps that confine users to drawing on their actual laptops and smartphones, but demand only negligible investment.

Digital Whiteboard Software Solutions

The $5,000-$6,000 one-off outlay (leaving aside the ongoing subscription fees) isn’t a deal breaker for the average small business, or the budding graphic designer. But if the fee can be avoided altogether it does give first-time users of the tech pause for thought.

There are a number of apps currently available that offer the same on-screen, shareable, real-time whiteboarding for smartphones, laptops, and PCs.

Explain Everything offers a whiteboard function for less than $3 a month, RealTime Board lets you access the service directly from your browser, and free service LiveBoard caters for unlimited amounts of users and searchable storage.

Video calling providers, including Zoom and GoToMeeting, also have the function built into their platforms, meaning you don’t have to look anywhere to get touchy with your video call, and you have a choice over which vendor you use.

Cisco, Google, and of course, Microsoft will all argue (quite rightly), that their standalone solutions offer a higher quality experience, but that doesn’t shield them from the accessibility and insignificant cost of the app options.

It’s happened before, many times. Paypal is a genuine online alternative to credit cards and even established mainstream banks. Smartphone GPS apps made external in-car units redundant only years after they were introduced. Social media has become a free source of news as newspapers of record throw up online paywalls.

None of the above apps operate to the quality and variety of their standalone competitors, but all have won themselves a huge market share.

If you’re a small business, it’s at least nice to have an alternative.

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