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Passenger desire for plug-and-play keeps IFE giants on their toes

Thales and Panasonic have moved aggressively to ensure their in-flight entertainment (IFE) hardware can support and enable different media applications and personal electronic devices, as today's tech-savvy travellers have come to expect more from their in-seat audio/video on demand (AVOD) systems.

But the two giants of IFE system manufacturing have taken different approaches to meet this goal.

From the software side, Thales plans to bring broad file management capability to the passenger. The firm has a software application "launching very shortly this quarter" that will have the capacity to support a variety of different file types on the seat-back screen, including MPEG video and audio, photographs in JPEG, Word documents, and PDF files, says Thales VP media services Stuart Dunleavy.

To do this, the IFE system integrates with different devices, such as digital cameras, personal computers and media players. "It's about providing a conduit for a passenger to integrate various media and file types into the seat-back screen," says Dunleavy.

Among the devices supported is the Apple iPod. However, unlike its rival Panasonic, Thales says it has taken a more "catholic" approach.

"Thales has the ability for passengers to connect to an external content device through USB port and [colour-coded] RCA jack port. Through those two formats, we can support a very wide range of consumer media devices," says Dunleavy.

To date, all of Thales' customers have elected to go with a more general solution rather than investing and installing a very specific iPod connectivity solution.

This differs from the path taken by Panasonic, which met the Apple iPod craze head-on by developing a seat-installed jack and "smart" cable that made using the massively popular device on aircraft as simple as plugging a lamp into a socket. Audio and video is sent from the iPod to the IFE system, which in turn sends power to the iPod.

"While I can't speak for our competition, the technology implementation they've pursued is unique to iPod devices. Once you've gone down that path, you've committed to an iPod solution. The RCA solution is generic. It facilitates anything, including Apple devices. Apple sells a RCA jack cable. You plug it into your iPod and redisplay content on the video screen," says Dunleavy, noting that Thales has customers, particularly in Asia, where iPod is not the dominant technology.

"We need to be sensitive to the global market and provide a solution that enables everybody. Having said that, we have a technical solution ready to go. It's on the shelf. We just haven't had a customer who has asked us to install that yet."

Panasonic, meanwhile, has secured deals with nearly a dozen customers to bring iPod connectivity on board aircraft. Singapore Airlines (SIA) became the first carrier in the world to debut this feature when it introduced iPod and iPhone connectivity on its all-business class Airbus A340-500 aircraft last year. The carrier is now claiming the distinction of becoming the first carrier to offer this feature to economy passengers.

All customers on SIA's new Airbus A330-300s, including in economy class, will have access to iPod and iPhone connectivity through SIA's 'KrisWorld' IFE system, which is based on Panasonic's eX2 platform.

The facility forms part of a new multi-port panel placed next to each customer's individual IFE screen. Besides the iPod and iPhone connectivity facility, the multi-port panel contains a USB port, enabling customers to listen to their own music, view their photos or read PDFs. It also contains an audio-video input, which enables passengers to plug in their portable media players to watch their favourite videos via the IFE system.

The initial phase of Panasonic's iPod connectivity development is referred to as "iPod connect". "It is something that has proven very, very popular with customers. It is being offered to everybody as part of the standard offering and most airlines are availing themselves of it," says Panasonic director of corporate sales and marketing Neil James.

But Panasonic's technology roadmap calls for introduction of "iPod merge", which goes a step further by allowing content metadata to be integrated or "consumed" into the graphical user interface (GUI) and displayed to the passenger via the IFE screen.

"The iPod content could be placed anywhere and in any manner within the GUI, but would typically be under a category for 'personal media' and a sub-category for 'iPod' The passenger would see the content divided into major categories (movies, video, music, audio books, and pictures) then sub-categories (genres). Selecting an item of content would cause a command to be sent to the iPod to execute playback and the content would be reproduced via the IFE system to the passenger," says James.

"Thus, there is no 'direct' control of the iPod via the IFE system, meaning, the navigation menu of the iPod is not reproduced. Rather, the content metadata is ingested, and from this, the passenger makes their selection and 'control' happens automatically in the background. This is simple and elegant."

Panasonic has secured a customer for "iPod merge", which is simply the working name for the offering. Introduction into revenue service is scheduled to occur mid-year.

"Being first to market is very important to our core strategy when it comes to functionality of IFE systems. We feel Panasonic is ahead of the pack. Our intention is to stay ahead of the pack," says James.

But Dunleavy insists passenger interest is "not just about the iPod, it's about consumer devices and the increasing trend in personal mobile media".

He adds: "The growth in consumer mobile media is not replacing or obviating the need for IFE. We're not seeing that. What we are seeing is a need for greater convergence of the two. It is really interesting that the airlines are needing to increase the richness and the content provided on the aircraft. It's not being replaced by what's being brought on board."

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