Airlines all over this increasingly toasty planet are getting in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems line-fitted to their new aircraft. But the retrofit market is also very hot right now, as evidenced by the growing number of carriers opting for new retrofit-ready seat-centric solutions.
On last count we've learned of seat-centric embedded offerings from The IMS Company, Zodiac unit Sicma, Intelligent Avionics, Rockwell Collins and digEcor, plus a fiber optic solution from Lumexis not to mention the gaggle of wireless IFE folks, Aircell included. Yes, the company is pursuing true wireless IFE, not the video download service previously planned.
All the IFE newcomers claim to be offering significant weight savings over "legacy" systems. If they're weighing embedded platforms against 10-year old, still-in-operation embedded IFE then they may have a good point, although I wonder if it is fair to compare an all-economy aircraft with 9in monitors throughout, no PCUs, no handsets and no PED power with systems that offer all of this - plus big screens up front - and more on a widebody? Ahem.
But who cares, right? What matters is the passenger's perception and experience. So let's call a spade a spade. Beyond seeing duct tape on overhead bins, natty seats, and crappy toilets, nothing makes passengers question the age (and ponder the safety) of an aircraft more than old, heavy-looking, antiquated IFE. They glance down at their iPhones, glance up at the IFE, and, well, #nuffsaid.
So, how are the superstars of IFE - Panasonic Avionics and Thales - responding to the new competition? In the line-fit market Panasonic and Thales have the big business locked up. They are the only two manufacturers in the world to have line-fit status on the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 (an in-flight connectivity conundrum is brewing on the latter project...more on that later).
For the retrofit market, Thales is offering its new seat-centric AVANT-lite solution to rival what's on offer from the new seat-centric players. I've got some nice video from #AIX11 about AVANT-lite and will post that soon.
Panasonic, meanwhile, says it can bring to airlines its new Android-based X Series, which retains head-end servers, "all-in" at around 4.6 lbs per seat on a Boeing 777-200 (see chart below).
"We can provide a business platform that weighs 4.6 lbs, not just an entertainment system that's 4.6 lbs. It's a much better value proposition for the same kind of weight," says Panasonic's Neil James. "By adding Android, in-flight connectivity and by being really light and smart at the seat and using capacitive touch, we see airlines saying: 'Wait, that's the same digital touch point as a smartphone or a Galaxy Tab'. That's what we're really striving for and have hit a home run with. They understand the system's revenue generation capability, and think to themselves 'Oh my God, I can get apps created by a local university and I don't have to incur the cost or time as in the past.'"
But what if a carrier absolutely wants more content stored in the seat to, say, improve reliability? Panasonic, which says its new systems are at 99.5% reliability already, is nonetheless happy to oblige.
James notes that Panasonic has offered airlines the ability to have seat-centric solutions to back-up or augment the existing server technology since 2006. "But customers found the systems to be reliable enough that for the most part they haven't necessarily had to use those drives. As we move to this [new Android] system, we will go to a second generation of displays that have local content storage so the airline has the choice to use it or to augment the experience. You're still obviously going to want to get content to those. And even the seat-centric guys have a device at the head-end."
James believes seat centric "is going the opposite way to the way the rest of the world" is going.
"Android phones are incredibly light. You're not walking around with an Android phone with a terabyte of storage. So when you do, for example, voice recognition for text on Android phones, it's not happening at the phone. It's going though the network and its happening at the server. So the world is going thinner and thinner client and more capacity at the server, but seat-centric goes the opposite way and says, 'Put complexity, weight and power into every single seat, as opposed to having a really fast network. We don't' think that's the way to go, but we are offering our airlines the option if you want to do that for redundancy, or if you think it's a better idea, we can do that and put storage in the seat."
He adds: "More and more airlines are recognizing that the latest generational systems are bringing IFE back as an essential touch point as opposed to that discretionary world we've been in for a while. There are several RFIs and RFPs out there where the airlines have left white space for us to dream a little and normally we only see that when airlines are freeing up discretionary expenses. We love that white space because that's where we get to bring our creativity and innovation to the table."
So why are the seat-centric guys gaining a bit of traction? Are they giving their systems away for free to get a toe-hold?
"We're seeing a lot of launch programme deals so I don't' know if the price has stabilized yet," says James. "Panasonic is providing global support. We're here for the long haul. We still support systems we made 20 years ago. We have a proven record in being able to do that and some new vendors will learn those lessons [about product support over the life-cycle] over time as we have. I can't speak to the price differential but what we see is airlines with aircraft where they say 'We're only going to fly this for so many yeas, we want to limit the amount of investment, but want to keep people occupied' and they're opening up to these new systems."