Microsoft Has a Bill Belichick Problem

Posted on October 19, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 84 Comments

Microsoft Has a Bill Belichick Problem

Credit: Getty Images

New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has spent his career destroying the hopes and dreams of the competition. But now he’s turned his ire on Microsoft’s Surface tablets. And the results are not pretty.

As you may know, Microsoft entered into a $400 million deal with the NFL back in mid-2013, beating out Apple and other tablet makers. The goal was simple: To bring the NFL into the 21st century and provide coaches and players with the most up-to-date information possible, in real time, on the field field during games.

In typical Microsoft fashion, the deal has always been a mixed bag. The NFL started using Surface Pro 2 tablets during the month in which Microsoft launched a much improved Surface Pro 3, and on-air commentators, players and coaches continued to refer to the devices as iPads for years, giving Apple free publicity.

This week, Mr. Belichick went on an extended rant about his bad experiences with Surface, and declared that he would no longer use the devices. (As is the case with a number of other NFL coaches, by the way.) I’ll get to that in a bit. Because many in the tech industry probably don’t realize that this event isn’t unique, or new. Bill Belichick has been complaining about the Surface for a long time.

The most heated issue—at least, before this week’s divorce—happened in January, when the Patriots lost the AFC Championship by two points to a Denver Broncos team that went on to win the Super Bowl, a contest many Patriots fans believe is theirs by birthright. But in this case, they may have a point: The morning after the loss, Belichick complained about the many ways and times in which the Surface tablets the Patriots were using kept failing, most notably during a Broncos touchdown drive.

The malfunctions were so bad that the NFL required the Patriots to shut down all of their Surfaces during that drive, while the suddenly surging Broncos were not required to do so. So they were blind, so to speak, while technicians tried to solve the problem.

Belichick didn’t actually blame the Surface tablets for the loss—he’s not a sore loser like so many of the Patriots’ adversaries—but he repeatedly noted that these kinds of issues were “common”. Microsoft complained, the NFL backed its big-paying partner, and history happened.

But I think it’s interesting to re-read Microsoft’s statement from January in the light of this week’s news. It says:

The NFL is one of the biggest entertainment properties in the world, and this unique partnership has helped to showcase the impact our technology can have for players, teams and coaches with Surface on the sideline as well as for millions of fans with Xbox and Windows 10 at home. Our products are making teams on the field more efficient and competitive and making the experience for fans more dynamic. Coaches, players and fans have echoed that sentiment, and for that reason we think this investment has been worthwhile.

Leaving aside the marketing baloney—does anyone really believe that Microsoft “invested” $400 million to make NFL games better for coaches, players or fans?—we’re left with this:

Our products are making teams on the field more efficient and competitive and making the experience for fans more dynamic.

And that is precisely what Mr. Belichick says is not happening.

“I’m done with the tablets,” Belichick said this week, and about 10 days after he had an infamous on-field hissy fit in which he tried to destroy one of the failing devices. “They’re just too undependable.”

“I just can’t take it anymore,” he noted, adding that he would “stick with [paper] pictures,” which “several other [NFL] coaches do as well,” presumably for the same reason.

Bill Belichick is 64 years old, and while many will believe that age and perhaps technology phobia plays into his worldview, don’t be fooled. Say what you will about the man, but he is among the winnigest of NFL coaches in history and his team has been the most feared adversary in the league for the past decade and a half. If Surface gave him or the Patriots any advantage at all, he’d take it.

To be fair, the Surface failures often involve communications equipment, which Belichick has explained is complex, with numerous on-field systems often interfering with each other. There are days when the game starts and the equipment is still not working, he says, despite hours of testing.

But then, this too factors into Microsoft’s decision making process. The firm was so hot to get the crucial NFL deal that it never considered the bad press it would get. When everyone called its tablets iPads. And when things didn’t work. Apple didn’t just save $400 million by not getting the NFL deal, it saved an untold amount by not taking a weekly hit to its reputation.

Getting back to Mr. Belichick, the other thing he says that really resonates with me is that the complexity and unreliability of using a Surface outweighs its benefits. And this is something that so many of us, especially those consider themselves technology enthusiasts, often ignore. We think this complexity and unreliability is just part of the deal.

“It’s basically a problem every week,” he said. “For me, it’s a personal decision. I’m done with the tablets. I’ll use the paper pictures from here on, because I have given it my best shot. I’ve tried to work through the process. But it just doesn’t work for me, and that’s because there’s no consistency to it.”

If that doesn’t sound familiar to the Surface Book or Surface Pro 4 users who just had the crappiest year of their technology-using lives because of the endemic issues with those devices, I don’t know what to say.

So, yes, Surface may be “trusted by the pros,” as Microsoft’s Surface NFL web site claims. It’s just not trusted by the most winningest of those pros. And, sorry, Microsoft. But that’s a problem of your own making. As it is so often.

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