NFL teams are swapping out their paper playbooks for iPads. Here's why it matters to your company

Credit: REUTERS/Mark Leffingwell

More than 10 NFL teams have replaced their decades-old system of paper playbooks with iPads.

The solutions show that iPads are more than just a toy for consumers – they're capable of running mission-critical, highly secure applications. In fact, a regional bank is now modifying one of the solutions from a company called PlayerLync to distribute confidential information to its board members.

In football, playbooks contain a list of the team's plays for the upcoming week. Until recently, they were printed and arranged into binders, distributed to players the week before the game, then destroyed and pulped after the game was over.

This is both costly and inefficient. PlayerLync CEO Bob Paulsen talked to one NFL team that said it cost more than $100,000 per year to maintain paper playbooks. Whenever the coaching staff wanted to insert an update, they'd have to find a way to get the new printed pages to players.

Plus, players are also supposed to watch hours of film from every game, which was a totally separate process.

Combining annotated plays plus video on a single easy-to-use device was a no brainer.

Paulsen explains the appeal of developing for the iPad, as opposed to a traditional personal computer.

"First off, the tablet form factor is absolutely perfect for this environment. Guys are on the road, on the move, traveling, and they really want to watch video. As a replacement for a paper playbook, it's kind of like piece of paper they could draw on. They're not typing. It's simple to administer, and simple to support from an IT standpoint."

It also allows teams to take advantage of the full Apple ecosystem.

"If a coach wants to project a play using Apple TV, they can do that," says Paulsen. "We created something called 'laser finger.' So now, a coach can just be looking at an iPad, click 'activate laser finger,' and anybody in the room can see what the coach is pointing to. It's not a major thing, but it's an example of how Apple created this environment of tools."

PlayerLync only started building its solution a little more than a year ago, but it's already being used by several NFL teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, and San Diego Chargers, plus Stanford in the NCAA.

Why it's not a cloud solution

Paulsen's background is telecommunications – he sold his last company, an IP-telephony provider called Unity Business Networks, to Telesphere in 2009. So his first thought was to create a cloud-based system. Teams would upload their playbook and videos to a secure web site, where players could log in and access them.

But the first team that PlayerLync worked with was dead-set against a cloud solution. Playbooks and films are extremely sensitive material – if an opposing team somehow got access to the content on the server, they could turn a close game into a rout. Plus, the team was already storing terabits of video material on its own internal servers, and didn't want to upload it all to a web server every week. Finally, it was shooting the video in high definition, and didn't want to deliver it as a low-quality streaming file over the web.

So PlayerLync went back to the drawing board and built a system that offered the security and peace of mind of an on-premises solution, along with "view anywhere" flexibility of a web app.

All plays, updates, and video files are uploaded to on-premises servers, then automatically pushed out to the players' iPads at regular intervals. Administrators can push specific content to individual players, or to groups like "quarterbacks," simply by dragging files into an appropriate folder.

This ensures that players get everything the coaches want them to have, as soon as it's available.

"A lot of players wouldn’t know when to hit sync on an app, or they wouldn’t know when new content was available. Plus, often times, the player might not be all that interested in downloading more homework," Paulsen told us. "Teams are transferring upwards of six or seven thousand files a week, at all hours of day, and really pushing limits on the iPad beyond what it was designed for. We're seeing teams in a 24-hour period pushing 1 terabyte content of data to these iPads."

"Time bomb" security

Because playbooks and game films are so sensitive, securing data was the first priority of PlayerLync's customers. The company came up with a pretty interesting solution that goes beyond standard security for iOS apps.

As you'd expect, each iPad is password-protected, and data can only be viewed within the PlayerLync app. Data is encrypted in transport, and teams can set restrictions so that material is pushed out only when the player is connected through a VPN or secure Wi-Fi connection.  

But more important, PlayerLync has a kind of "time bomb" security system. Each iPad is required to check in with the server at regular intervals. If it skips a check-in, all PlayerLync content on the device is automatically wiped. Then, if the player later checks in – say, after a long flight with no Wi-Fi access – all plays and videos are automatically re-downloaded.

"People are getting smarter these days, if they grab a player's iPad and know the passcode, they could enter the app and put it into airplane mode," explains Paulsen. That could prevent a remote admin from wiping the device until the thief had the information he wanted.

Security is also a big reason why PlayerLync created its solution for iPads only, rather than offering it for other kinds of devices. iPads are locked down – the file system is not easily accessible and there's no way to connect a USB device to steal data.

These security features are a big reason why other types of businesses are taking a look at PlayerLync's solution for their own needs.

David Lewien is the president of Go West IT, an outsourced IT provider based in the Denver area. He told us that a lot of his customers, which are mostly small and mid-size businesses, have wanted to share documents via their iPads. This is mostly customer-driven: a lot of senior executives are bringing iPads to work.

"We’re routinely pointing out the security weaknesses in our customers' push for iPads," Lewien told us. He also noted that a lot of companies don't understand that they need custom apps to get the most out of their iPads. "You kind of need app to do things unless you're just working with PDFs or Word documents. Some customers don't understand that the app is a critical piece of middleware."

When Lewien saw PlayerLync's administrative console, and the "time bomb" security provision, "that was the extra piece we needed." Lewien is now helping a regional bank adapt the PlayerLync solution to share information among board members. (He asked us not to publish the name of the bank.)

The big lesson: it's not just the hardware that matters

Although the PlayerLync team has an exceptional history of software development and integration, they had never done iOS development before starting the company. They are full of praise for the iPad and the ecosystem that Apple and its partners have built around it, but Paulsen has one caution for companies considering deploying an iPad solution: no matter how great the hardware is, you need solid software to run on it.

"We saw these various teams buying iPads a year ago without knowing what software they'd put on them. There were very manual insecure ways that teams started to try to distribute video, just plugging their iPads into the video director's laptop, using iTunes to distribute video to the iPad. That's not very secure, and not very scalable."

He continues. "Start like you would start with any good business decision: clarify your goals, clarify the needs of the organization, and what you expect these things to do, then research the options available. If there aren't any, hold off on pulling the trigger on day one."

"But if you find an organization that specializes in automating your existing processes that are already working, and can apply new technology to those processes, then technology can really free an organization to change the way they work."

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