Network outage or not, Microsoft's Surface tablet took a loss on Patriots sideline

By the time Microsoft clarified that its tablets weren't working due to a networking issue, the damage to their reputation was already done.

Microsoft Surface tablet failure New England Patriots network issue
Credit: Image credit: Microsoft

It's a high-tech PR person's worst nightmare. You spend big bucks to get your technology used by celebrities in high-profile events, and then something goes wrong and your equipment doesn't work at the worst possible moment, in a very public way. Whether it turns out the glitch is your fault or not, everyone knows about it.

That's exactly what happened on Sunday when, according to the CBS broadcast of the NFL's AFC Championship game, the Microsoft Surface tablets used by the Patriots on the sidelines were unable to access the real-time photos that teams use to study previous plays and make decisions about upcoming plays. (Apparently, accessing that particular app is the only approved sideline use of the devices.)

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During the second quarter, CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn told millions of viewers that, "they're having some trouble with their Microsoft Surface tablets — on the last defensive possession the Patriots' coaches did not have access to those tablets to show pictures to their players. NFL officials have been working at it. Some of those tablets are back in use, but not all of them. A lot of frustration that they didn't have them on that last possession."


About 20 minutes later, CBS reported that the tablets were back in operation, and a Microsoft spokesperson claimed the problem was network related.

"Our team on the field has confirmed the issue was not related to the tablets themselves but rather an issue with the network," the spokesperson said. "We worked with our partners who manage the network to ensure the issue was resolved quickly."

CBS then said the tablets would use "hard wires" to maintain connectivity during the rest of the game.

That may be, but by then the damage was done. Predictably, the Twitterverse instantly lit up in delight, skewering Microsoft six ways to Sunday over what was quickly dubbed #Tabletgate.

Microsoft spent a reported $400 million to get the NFL to make the Surface the official tablet of the NFL, and was initially vexed by the penchant for game announcers to refer to them as "iPads." (Having your device mistaken for your competitor's is probably a high-tech PR person's second worst nightmare.)

But Tabletgate is a far bigger black eye for Microsoft. While it's doubtful that the tablet glitch made a material contribution to the Patriots' 20-18 defeat by the Denver Broncos, there's no question that Microsoft lost big over the incident.

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