Will tablets, like the Apple iPad, spell the end of in-flight entertainment (IFE), like some folks suggest? One industry expert weighs in (yes, anonymously, but you'll see our expert knows about which he speaks).
I don't think it will spell the end of IFE, but perhaps not for the reasons many seem to presume. For me, the value in IFE comes from a few unique-to-IFE areas:
The first is content, collectively. Content is king. If you look at the consistent winners for cabin experience, and in some cases, IFE specifically, you will see a trend in that each has focused on providing a content-rich experience. You could set your iPad (or laptop, or iPod, or whatever) on auto-download for weeks on end, on your home network (the fastest) and not even come close to having the same content experience that is possible on IFE. Factor in that airlines refresh their content every month (and in frequently emergent cases, even more often) and you can see where the PED experience cannot hope to keep pace.
The next is the experience. IFE is "uniquely present" in the cabin experience requiring nothing more of you than to select what you want to do. Moreover, it's present for the airlines, which is to say, they extend their brand to every passenger. Yes, there are some airlines that should never have been allowed to put their hands on the GUI/brand design, but there are many that truly "get it," having created a wonderful environment that both appeals and satisfies. The passenger is subtly and deeply immersed into the airline's brand and simply selects what they want, and they off and running. No muss, no fuss, no device to hold-up/prop-up, etc. I think it was LiveTV that did the brilliant ad that said, "Is this the future of IFE" in which a passenger was hunched over their iPod, craned neck (ouch, that hurts) holding their device to watch a video. With the iPad, or otherwise, this will remain the case. And with the iPad, the airline gets little, though I must admit that with the connectivity portals, they can extend via this portal.
The next is evolution. IFE manufacturers are not going to rest on their success thinking they've got this sussed. Sure, they're proud of what they've achieved and think they have a great product. That said, their product strategists are always focused on innovation. What tends to get lost on the doomsayers of IFE is that there's more to this than what meets the eye (of the user).
IFE manufacturers design for experience, reliability, quality, weight, power, consistency, etc. This never stops.
Another item to consider is penetration. Sure, Steve Jobs and his ilk would LOVE to see iPad ubiquity; their model is about so much more than the device (think Apps Store and iTunes; that's where the killer profit comes from), but I posit that they'll be lucky to see a 10-15% penetration in developed markets, and substantially less in less-developed markets.
Further, their penetration is dubious in non-English-speaking markets; look at the failure of the iPhone in Japan and Korea. In air transport, the product has truly reached the masses. The cost of air travel has dropped so low that huge aspects of the population now travel, if not frequently, at least with some irregularity. Will all of these folks have portable media devices? Not likely. I don't even think that a majority will have them. For the airlines, the IFE product is not only part of their brand, it's a significant pacifier that keeps the passengers sedate and happy, especially families with kids. Again, happy.
Beyond product evolution (hardware and systems), a primary focus for IFE companies, now, is on the passenger experience and the business platform that modern IFE represents. The advent and emergence of connectivity is rapidly evolving the IFE paradigm. People are keenly aware of the necessity to keep the platform current while also providing airlines with increasing opportunities for revenue enhancement, passenger intimacy, etc. There are myriad methods to do this, typically unique to each airline, but they are happening and will continue to do so. The challenge to ensure that IFE firms not only keep pace, but that they drive change.
By the way, I should say that I DO see a place for devices such as the iPad in IFE. They will be accommodated and perhaps even catered to some degree. There may even be airlines that will want wireless networks with content streaming, etc., and no imbedded seat equipment. This is not yet practical with current technology (not enough bandwidth for mass streaming), but there will come a day. But herein again, for lesser penetration (back to my 15%, above).
(Photo of iPad from myuibe's Flickr stream)