David J. Danto
Collaboration Industry Consultant and Analyst
Covering AV / IoT / Mobility / Multimedia / Video / Unified Communications
Technology Grab Bag – Product Reviews
One of the side benefits of being a technology consultant is you get to preview a whole bunch of new stuff. Sometimes the system or device I get to play with is directly related to enterprise collaboration – my area of expertise. Sometimes the device isn’t really intended for collaboration but I position it for that purpose with interesting results. And sometimes I try out what is just a cool piece of technology, unrelated to any specific focus area. I have to admit that when it comes to trying out these devices I am just the proverbial “bigger boy with bigger toys” loving every minute of it. Learning about new products is just one of the ways I work at staying current with the tech world as a digital immigrant. Here are some of the new devices I’ve been playing with recently.
· Smart Kapp from SmartTechnologies: If you are involved in enterprise collaboration or communication then you have heard of the recent “breakthrough” of Microsoft’s new Surface Hub interactive display. Regrettably, Microsoft is just repeating a failed technology process in this case. Firms occasionally convince themselves they can “do something better” and lock themselves away to reinvent the wheel. The results are always devoid of the knowledge base learned in the particular space up to that date – and are often failures that “go down in flames.” The jury is still out with the Surface Hub, but it stands in contrast to what Smart has done. Smart designed and built top-of-the-line interactive displays for nearly twenty years. (Oddly enough, Microsoft knows this very well as they demonstrated the Smart Lync Room System interactive capabilities at Enterprise connect in 2013.) Smart learned from their experience in the market. Complex to use interactive displays are useful for every-day users – like teachers and design engineers, but the typical enterprise conference room user literally won’t touch them. Adapting to the need, Smart has released their Kapp series of interactive white boards and displays. These are as easy to use as a dry erase board – zero learning curve. The images are then able to be shared with anyone anywhere, and saved as needed. The flipchart replacement model shown here costs about $1K US. The display based version – their KappIQ – is about three times that. I now have one in my office I use to illustrate my designs and flow-charts. I send the URL to anyone I’m speaking with – over video or audio – and they all can see it in real time. When I do a videoconference, I use my own browser to send it to the far end. These are just awesome solutions at prices that are worthwhile, even if all you want to do is save money and the environment by not buying paper flipcharts. If you’d like me to demo one for you remotely just send me an email…
· Zettaly Avy: Every once in a while a new product comes along that you really want to like. This is one of them. As a start-up firm, Zettaly imagined placing a 7” Android tablet in a mini-boom-box housing. What you get is a versatile appliance. You can listen to music, watch music videos on YouTube, play games, participate in videoconferences, etc. The system has a price tag of about $200 US (though the ‘on sale’ price has been typically lower.) I saw this system demo’ed at CES in January (having backed it in a crowdfunding campaign) and couldn’t wait for them to start shipping. I finally received my unit in June. I wish I could report that it is fantastic, but I can’t. Like the old saying goes, “jack of all trades, master of none.” The speakers sound good – but only if one or two people are sitting in front of the unit - I have smaller speakers that are ten times louder (with much richer bass.) The screen is a decent size and responsive, but not as good as any of the tablets I already own. It comes with a remote control, but only some of its buttons work with some of the apps. And yes, it can do audio conferencing and videoconferencing over the internet (Skype and WebEx worked for me with no problem) but with a 1 megapixel VGA camera it isn’t going to make you look very good at the far end. At the price point this seemed like it would be a fantastic appliance for utility work in kitchens, videoconferencing from your grandparent’s house, etc. Honestly, I don’t find it good enough in any area to warrant buying it instead of a stand-alone tablet and separate speakers. Add a little creatively placed gaffer’s tape and you’ll have a device that costs less and performs better. Maybe, if you have a summer home or alternate desk and don’t want to have to drag a bunch of separate items there the compact nature of this represents some additional value. I wanted to love the Avy, but it turned out to be a little too weak in so many areas that I can’t recommend it for very many uses.
· Amazon Echo: The Echo is a voice controlled assistant for the cloud. Much in the same spirit as Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, “Alexa” as she likes to be called can answer some basic questions and perform some basic tasks. You say her name to wake her up – as she is always listening for it – with inquiries like “Alexa, what is the weather today in Boisie, Idaho” to which she responds with the current conditions, temperature and a brief forecast. Alexa can play Amazon Prime music or your own music (if you’ve uploaded it to Amazon’s cloud – for which there is a charge after the small free space allowance. Of course, it plays music on a monaural speaker, so it’s not what I’d call its strong suit.) It can play internet radio, provide something it calls a “news blast”, give you recipes, define words and give sports scores. It also has about a hundred funny answers to some specific questions. At first the Echo seems like a cool novelty to have in the house, but one soon finds out that Alexa is not very smart or creative when it comes to something she doesn’t know or can’t do – those examples are like falling-off a cliff. For example, when I asked Alexa “what time is sunset today” she responded by saying “sunset is at 8:19pm” and when I asked her “what time is it” she responded “the time is 10:18” but when I asked her “how long till sunset” she replied “sorry, I don’t have the answer to that question.” When an AI system clearly knows the answer to a question - but needs it to be phrased perfectly to get the correct response - that tells me that it was a poor programming effort. That’s not the only shortfall. Alexa can remember things for your grocery shopping list, but she can’t remove them – only add – and she can only put them into her companion app. She can’t send them in an email or text message. You can’t either, as the lists aren’t in a text file format in the app. Also, Alexa can apparently control some WiFi switches and devices in your house, but in order to get that to work you have to replace your current controls with things like Belkin’s Wemo series – which are simply not very good for too many reasons to mention. Ultimately, while the Echo is cool and interesting, it’s not really very useful – and it won’t be until the programming for it and the companion ecosystem products significantly improve. If I were Amazon I’d start with an infrared universal remote interface device to allow Alexa to control some devices people already own. If she could turn my existing stereo on and play CDs from my existing digital library that’d be much better than the limited programming from her little speaker.
· Conference Cam Connect from Logitech: Earlier this year Logitech released this device – lovingly referred to as “the Thermos” by those in the industry. It is a cylindrical accessory that has a speaker / microphone and a video camera, and supports multiple connection modalities. Much better than a webcam – but not quite a room camera – this device was designed to serve the exploding “huddle room” category of enterprise conferencing. It can sit next to a PC in a person’s office and work as a great webcam for one user, or be rotated around and pick-up the 2-3 people sitting around his or her guest table. It also supports screen mirroring / Miracast for HDMI displays. As long as it doesn’t try to do more than that (like be the speakerphone / camera for a room of 6 or more people) it is an excellent niche product, well worth the few hundred bucks it costs. I use it almost every day as the camera for my office PC.
If you’re using these products please send me a note and let me know if you agree or disagree with my review. Also, if you have a device you’d like me to review and describe in my articles, social media updates and newsletters, let me know that as well – I’m always happy to try new devices and systems with an open mind.
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This article was written by David Danto and contains solely his own, personal opinions. David has over three decades of experience providing problem solving leadership and innovation in media and unified communications technologies for various firms in the corporate, broadcasting and academic worlds including AT&T, Bloomberg LP, FNN, Morgan Stanley, NYU, Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan Chase. He now works with Dimension Data as their Principal Consultant for the collaboration, multimedia, video and AV disciplines. He is also the IMCCA’s Director of Emerging Technology. David can be reached at David.Danto@Dimensiondata.com or DDanto@imcca.org and his full bio and other blogs and articles can be seen at Danto.info. Please reach-out to David if you would like to discuss how he can help your organization solve problems, develop a future-proof collaboration strategy for internal use, or if you would like his help developing solid, user-focused go-to-market strategies for your collaboration product or service.
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