Gizmos

Microsoft’s Office of the Future Seems to Be Missing Something

Where’s the voice control?

A woman uses the Surface Hub 2 to teleconference with four people as she makes a presentation about a building.
The Surface Hub 2 is built for the boardroom.
Microsoft

Microsoft, best known for its software, still manages to churn out a beautiful piece of hardware every once in a while. On the portable side, products like its Microsoft Surface Laptop show that the company still has a keen sense of design and a knack for developing products for the modern era. The larger Surface Studio does the same for the desktop.

Now, the company’s just-announced Surface Hub 2 promises to be a sleek, extra-large addition to the office boardroom when it begins shipping next year. The Hub 2, a more affordable follow-up to the original 2016 Surface Hub, is a 50.5-inch touchscreen display ringed by only the most slender of black bezels. The device, which is designed for collaborative use on a wall or stand, can be rotated in landscape or portrait mode, with a detachable 4K camera for transforming the screen into a life-size video chatting platform. Its demo video highlights an impressive array of swiping, drawing, and dragging-and-dropping reminiscent of the seminal 2002 sci-fi film Minority Report. It “really feels like the company’s vision of the future is becoming a reality,” the Verge writes of the new product. But there also appears to be something missing—something big.

Across the Hub 2’s website and introductory blog post, there’s no mention of a trend that many believe to be the future of computing: voice control. Instead it focuses almost entirely on touch-based interactions. The Surface Hub 2’s teaser video shows scenes of various teams working together on projects, with one or more people in front of the display swiping open documents or tapping on graphics.

The device also includes a fingerprint sensor for biometric user authentication—multiple users can even log in simultaneously to access, share, and collaborate on files. It all looks incredibly slick, until you stop to think for a moment. In a boardroom environment, wouldn’t at least some users prefer to be authenticated by voice, rather than having to press a finger to the side of this device’s display? And closing out programs or opening new documents—that’s a task that could be easily accomplished with a bark from the comfort of a Herman Miller Aeron, rather than with an on-screen swipe or tap. While the ability to draw, edit, or select items on-screen with a finger is certainly useful, it also generally seems that a number of these kinds of tasks could be delegated by voice instead. For such a futuristic vision of the workplace, it already feels antiquated—and the Surface Hub 2 won’t even launch until 2019.

It’s a puzzling decision. Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, is built into Windows 10 to answer your queries, coordinate with your calendar, and do many of the other tasks we’ve come to expect virtual assistants to do. You can use Cortana to open both Microsoft and third-party apps, as well as transcribe and translate. The Surface Hub 2 will run Windows 10, so Cortana will be baked into the experience. Given the Hub 2’s launch is still quite distant, it’s possible that the touchscreen’s voice control capabilities could go beyond what we see with Windows 10 devices currently. When asked for comment about the Surface Hub 2’s voice control capabilities, a Microsoft representative said that more would be shared in the coming months. (Microsoft has previously noted that some enterprise and collaboration-focused Cortana capabilities would arrive later this year.)

Still, it’s curious that in a world increasingly influenced by voice control, Microsoft’s vision for the modern office seems to omit that idea entirely. The likely scenario is that it’s just a temporary oversight: Microsoft wanted to highlight the hands-on and visual collaboration aspects of its latest piece of hardware in this initial announcement. It wants to sell this several-thousand-dollar piece of hardware, after all. But it’s also hard to shake the impression that this undoubtedly cool device feels passé, something that would have wowed five years ago but hasn’t entirely kept up with modern trends. Even so, Microsoft has few competitors in this department, and its original Surface Hub is used by more than 5,000 businesses and more than 50 Fortune 100 companies. Even if the Hub 2 ends up a little dated, it’ll still become a boardroom staple.