Surface tablets were allowed for the first time on the sideline of an NFL game Sunday night.
Associated Press

If you watched the National Football League's preseason kickoff Sunday night, you might have noticed something missing from the sidelines: players rifling through old-school binders of black and white photos.

As part of a $400 million, five-year deal with Microsoft that was announced last year, NFL teams are using stripped-down versions of Surface tablets on the sidelines and in the coaches' booths upstairs. The tablets connect to a closed network in the stadium and deliver color photos of on-field action that can be zoomed, annotated and bookmarked for viewing later. (All other functionality — cameras, Internet access, apps, programs — is disabled. Videotaping game action is a no-no, after all.)

The new system is meant to shave seconds from the old method of snapping, printing, binding and flipping through pages upon pages of colorless shots on the sidelines. The deal envisions coaches one day using the tablets for play-calling.

The tablets are outfitted with rubber cases and waterproof screens — using one during a Green Bay blizzard should be a joy — and are handed out by the league just prior to kickoff.  Hands off at the end of the game: The NFL takes them back and stores them in climate-controlled cases.

For coaches that aren't ready to move on to the so-called Sideline Viewing System, the old photos are still available. Good thing, as technology is known to fail. "I was told mine was going to work, and mine didn't work," Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone said after his team fell 17-13 to the New York Giants, the Associated Press reported. Once the tech got fixed by the second half, Marrone "liked it a lot."

Microsoft's deal with the NFL should give some high-profile exposure to the Surface, which so far has been a money-loser for the company. In addition to the tablets themselves, the referee instant-replay stations and other areas along the sidelines will carry the Surface branding.


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