Inside Slant: Microsoft Surface tablets penetrate NFL's technology barrier

Another in an Inside Slant series on innovation in and around the NFL. For all Inside Slant posts, follow this link.

Like players and coaches, technology must earn its spot in the world of football. The gauntlet is rigorous and resistance is substantial, but every now and then, an idea sneaks through and achieves a long-due evolution.

This season -- lo and behold -- the NFL upgraded its procedures for viewing photographs of formations and alignments on its game-day sidelines. In what was heralded as a major breakthrough, each team has access to 13 Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablets on the sideline and another 12 in the coaches' box.

As recently as 2013, team video directors were printing black-and-white photos, arranging them in three-ring binders and delivering them by hand to waiting coaches. Now, they upload color photos to the tablets via a hidden Wi-Fi system, allowing coaches and players to scroll, pinch and zoom in near real-time.

The country's tech media has had some fun with announcers and players referring to the devices as iPads, an early hurdle for Microsoft marketing. For the most part, however, this simple advancement -- nearly five years after tablets become commercially available -- is now part of the game's stodgy fabric.

(The best endorsement? New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, 62 and a 39-year veteran of NFL coaching, claimed he was "overwhelmed" by the tablets when first introduced but has since been caught pinching and zooming himself.)

I don't know of anyone who believes the new system has revolutionized in game adjustments. Its primary function has been to provide a cleaner, greener and more convenient way to view the same information teams have always used during games.

The story here isn't a sudden flow of new data or some other kind of 180-degree turn. No, no, no no. It's that a new technology managed to infiltrate and gain general acceptance in the NFL's risk-averse and change-averse environment. It took, of course, more than a year of development, a compliance with a long list of custom demands and -- a bit cynically -- a $400 million sponsorship deal with Microsoft -- before the NFL was willing to try a relatively simple innovation.

I was struck this summer after encountering the smart and tech-savvy backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck at Indianapolis Colts training camp. More than anything, Hasselbeck seemed amused at the perceived heights the NFL was reaching by using a tablet on the sideline.

The Colts were also in their first year using GPS chips to help measure player exertion, a technology we discussed in this Hot Read story, and Hasselbeck said: "For both of those things, I think the feeling is, 'Wow, we're on the cutting edge.' But that stuff has been around forever.

"We're doing it, but we're not on the cutting edge of one thing technology-wise in football," he added. "I can't think of one thing, technology wise, that we're the leader in. All we're looking at on the Microsoft Surface is a still-shot picture. We're just replacing the black and white pictures we used to look at. The Microsoft Surface has been out forever."

According to James Bernstrom, Microsoft's director of product marketing, the development process for the NFL system began in earnest before the 2013 season. Working with the NFL's competition committee, Microsoft developed a custom device that is Windows-based but runs only one app -- the photo viewer. The exterior is waterproof and is modified for use in temperatures between minus-10 and 120 degrees. If gloves inhibit touch use, a stylus-like instrument can be used.

"We think this is allowing players and coaches to be more productive than ever on the sideline," Bernstrom said.

It's all relative, of course. Hasselbeck, in his 16th NFL season, has witnessed several tech-based "innovations" that came years after they were common in other industries. Teams have slowly been converting their playbooks to iPads, and despite the availability of Surface Pros, some teams are still printing out game-day photos for coaches who prefer it.

"It wasn't too long ago that I was getting plays taught to me on an overhead projector on transparencies," Hasselbeck said. "We made a huge deal when we went to Power Point. And then a couple years later, we got the color Power Point. And now we have iPads [for playbooks].

"My daughter, who was in sixth grade last year, used an iPad for everything. You have your iPad for football and then your personal iPad. You can't put your Instagram account on your team iPad. It's like, 'Wow, that's too crazy.' But I get the trust factor. You've got to build it. But mostly, it's because this is football, where we do things like they've always been done."

Except every now and then, when a long overdue transition occurs. What's next? How about true wireless communication on the sideline, so coaches aren't tripping over cords as the Green Bay Packers' Mike McCarthy did earlier this season. Oh, you're right. Let's not get crazy.