Heavily-Modded Microsoft Surface Tablets Used on NFL Sidelines for the First Time

Last night's Hall of Fame game between the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills was the first official NFL game where Microsoft Surface tablets were available as an alternative to printed overhead black and white photos.

Operation Gadget was one of the first sites to capture a live picture from an NFL game where a Microsoft Surface tablet was being used.

Availability of photos on the sidelines at NFL games has always been closely regulated, in order to not provide either team with a competitive advantage. So no one should be surprised that the NFL is carefully managing these tablets.

The NFL is employing Surface tablets as a part of a technology partnership announced with Microsoft in May 2013. That multi-year partnership, reportedly valued at $400 million, has resulted in the creation of a new system called the Sideline Viewing System, which is an attempt to replace printed sideline photos as well as notes and diagrams drawn on top of those photos. Although the primary use will be on the field, ProFootball Talk reported, "Teams also will be permitted to take the {Surface} tablets to the locker room during halftime to review photos with notes. During halftime, however, the tablets won't be connected to the wireless system."

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports, "... several conspicuous alterations made to the company's standard tablets {were made to Surface Pro 2 tablets at the NFL's request}. The NFL's Surface tablets have had their cameras disabled and can connect only to a private in-stadium wireless network. The devices can only run a single program, which allows people to browse through digital game photographs."

The article continues, "It's not exactly a groundbreaking moment of innovation in football. The photos displayed on the tablets are in now color and arrive to the sideline slightly faster than before. The tablets also allow annotations to be made on the screen, and specific plays can be saved for later review. Other than that, there's no difference between the tablets and those binders you've always seen quarterbacks poring over."

Where we disagree with BusinessWeek's take on Surface use at NFL games is that we wouldn't call them "crippled". By making the tablets weatherproof, connecting them to a private wireless network in each stadium, and limiting them to a single app, the NFL is avoiding many of the foreseeable performance and reliability issues. It's also maintaining ownership and control of the devices to be used on the sidelines, which is going to take off-the-table the potential competitive advantages of a more open bring-your-own-device system.

The rollout of these Surface tablets raises a lot of interesting technical and league rule questions that we hope to explore as we talk to our contacts within the NFL.