Panasonic Avionics and Thales have enjoyed a virtual duopoly in the world of embedded in-flight entertainment since about 2006, when Rockwell Collins effectively jumped out of the widebody market by opting not to develop systems for the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787.
However, the two manufacturers' five-year reign is now under threat. A new set of players are vying for the throne, or at least a sizeable piece of the audio/video-on-demand action. Some firms, such as The IMS Company and Intelligent Avionics, are forgoing traditional head-end server-based solutions and focusing on "seat-centric" options instead.
The former has already inked deals to supply its Rave solution to SriLankan Airlines and Air Berlin. Another seat-centric design, developed by aircraft interiors giant Zodiac Aerospace's Sicma Aero Seat unit, is now flying on Royal Jordanian Airbus A340s and will soon find its way on to TUI Group's Corsairfly A330 and Boeing 747 widebodies and two South African Airways A330s.
Significantly, the Corsairfly contract calls for some of the A330s to be line-fitted with Sicma's seat-integrated technology (SiT) by Airbus, representing an inroad with the airframer that has not been achieved by other IFE providers for some years.
Lumexis is also gaining traction, having secured FlyDubai as a customer for its fibre-optics-based fibre-to-the-screen IFE system, which is being retrofitted to the carrier's new Boeing 737-800s after they roll off the production line with the airframer's Sky Interior.
German holiday carrier Condor has selected Lufthansa Systems' new wireless system
Lufthansa Systems, meanwhile, is bringing a new wireless IFE solution to market, having won a contract to fit German holiday carrier Condor's Boeing 767 twinjets with the potentially revolutionary solution.
While no two systems are exactly alike, all the new entrants share the same message: their platforms are substantially less heavy and less costly than legacy in-seat IFE solutions. Nonetheless, as industry stakeholders prepare to descend on Hamburg for the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) on 5-7 April, it is clear the new kids on the IFE block have grabbed the attention of airlines as much as Panasonic and Thales.
"We're always looking for signs of momentum in one direction or another," says independent consultant Michael Childers.
"If IMS walks into AIX with five or six new Rave orders, Zodiac Aerospace walks in with three customers and hopes for another half dozen, and Lumexis walks in with Transaero added to FlyDubai - then add in Condor's announcement for Lufthansa Systems' new wireless system - that suggests momentum away from the traditional IFE systems. In as far as AIX is concerned, the trajectory of that momentum seems to favour seat-centricism."
IMS seems particularly well-positioned to capture market share. On the back of its portable IFE experience, IMS determined that an installed system's reliability would benefit significantly if content, applications and playback capability were stored in each seat unit.
The self-contained system is connected to high-speed ethernet. Recent improvements to the Rave display have resulted in "a very modern design, much like popular smartphones and other devices", says Harry Gray, IMS vice-president, sales and marketing.
"The look now certainly flows with our graphical user interface that also has the same modern operation and appearance. This all makes the product more appealing and less intimidating to the general passenger population, especially those that are using the [Apple-like] devices today," he adds.
With four Royal Jordanian A340s already fitted with SiT, Sicma is among few new entrants able to provide a real-world case study of how seat-centric solutions work.
"We have the monthly content prepared in the same way it is prepared for the rest of the industry," says Thomas Lee, director of business development at Sicma parent Zodiac.
"It is in a solid-state hard drive. That hard drive is installed in one location on the airplane, in the crew control panel - which is locked and requires a key entrance - and it will update all the new content seamlessly in the background over a network to all of the individual screens in the seats," he adds.
Royal Jordanian uses Sicma technology
Sicma's preferred architecture is fibre-optic. "That is what we installed on Royal Jordanian, but we also have a copper traditional backbone ethernet-type solution if the airline would prefer that architecture," Lee says.
One reason SiT was "born inside a seat company", Lee says, is that "historically in the aviation industry there has been a huge problem with integration of IFE systems. Traditionally, an IFE company designed its own system and the seat company its own seat, and somehow they had to bring this all together. There were enormous problems with that process, including major delivery delays and major reliability problems."
Since SiT's inception, integrated IFE/seat projects have become the norm. Panasonic has worked with Sicma sister Weber on an award-winning super-slim solution, originally dubbed Fusion, pencilled in to be fitted to Delta Air Lines' 747s. "Both [Fusion and SiT] can exist at the same time," Lee says. "There is not one solution that is going to work for everybody in the world. We can all exist happily in the same space."
Another example of an integrated IFE/seat solution, now flying on several FlyDubai 737-800s, is the Lumexis fibre-to-the-screen embedded in Recaro seating.
"People seem to love it as they are buying movies, playing games and doing all the things that FlyDubai hopes they'll do," says Lumexis chief executive Doug Cline, an industry veteran who previously headed Sony Trans Com and developed the Passport audio/video-on-demand system. "I've been doing this stuff a long time and this is probably, along with Passport, one of the more significant system deployments I've seen and it is by far the most trouble-free and impressive deliveries to date," he adds.
Lumexis is working hard to gain line-fit offerability for the fibre-to-the-screen with Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer. "The OEMs are amazingly responsive these days," Cline notes. While IFE solutions have a strong footing, Lufthansa Systems is going in a different direction with its new wireless BoardConnect solution, based on a wi-fi network passengers can log on to via seat-back screens or their own laptops, tablet PCs, smartphones or other wi-fi-enabled devices.
BoardConnect will be installed on a single Condor 767 by this summer and could then be rolled out to the rest of Condor's fleet.
Jorg Liebe, Lufthansa Systems chief information officer, says the company is working on supplemental type certification for the Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency, with Condor the first customer in Europe.
"We have other customers, which we are not announcing as of now, but we are working with other customers as well," Liebe adds.
Faced with such competition, Panasonic and Thales are not resting. Last year, Thales revealed its next-generation TopSeries IFE hardware, which boasts a decreased dependency on the head-end equipment and increased capacity of the system within the seat. Panasonic, meanwhile, intends to unveil its next-generation IFE system at AIX.