SymontySez 1.2 – The Androids Are Coming!

0

Let’s start with some reminiscing… (Harp music, wavy dissolve)

I remember quite well how when I accidentally got in this whole IFE business, and I do mean accidentally, my IFE greeted me with a blue screen of death and a little Windows logo.

Flash Forward 10 years: The IFE industry is now dominated by Linux Operating Systems with Windows support relegated to a few minor players. Meanwhile the terrestrial world has, in the specialized personal device market, gone through a similar revolution, so perhaps it is time for these two activities to merge?

Lets examine the two industries in a little more detail:

Personal Devices
OK, we all have one, it has email, surfs the net and can even make phone calls. I have an iPhone, and in my office we have a collection of iOS and Android based devices, and yet, a few years ago we were all amazed at just being able to make phone calls from almost anywhere. For me the big change was applications. The first Smartphone I had that allowed me to install or create real apps was my Palm Treo and I loved it. However the world did not seem ready for user installed features on a portable device and the quagmire of choice that comes with it.

Fast forward again: What really changed was the unification of the devices, the OS and more so than the application methods (Development Kits and the ” app store”) that came with it. The developers now had a well-documented set of rules and tools to abide by, and the consumer had a central trustworthy method for customizing their powerful devices.

Both Android and Apple iOS focus on these areas heavily, as do the latest incarnations of Windows and BlackBerry.

Inflight Entertainment* (IFE) Systems
As the name suggests the purpose of these systems onboard is to Entertain passengers. This started with movie projectors, and is now rapidly moving to servers and connectivity, replacing the need for bulky aircraft hardware with the passengers’ own devices, which, of course, are most likely one of the PEDs discussed above.

This change has four major strengths:
1) Content options. (Applications and media)
2) Modern devices
3) Weight
4) Certification

The last two options are somewhat academic as any device added to an aircraft has this disadvantage. But if IFE was just like a modern device, say running Android, it would support the latest technology and a huge array of applications that are easy to develop and deploy, would it not? And thus, it would stop the movement away from the in-seat IFE hardware vendors.

However, there are real challenges to merge these two very different industries.

Real Cost of “Free” (Open Source)
In my experience the extended (often years) delivery process, the single “airline program” focus and the “drop and forget” strategies of the IFE industry are Ying to the Yang of open source. Open source is like a virtual painting of the Mona Lisa, with an infinite number of artists that is never finished. As each brush stroke is added a person may grab that painting as her own and run with it on the proviso that she lets others obtain her version for free. The real cost comes weeks later when you realize your version is not as good as today’s version, and you need to merge your newly painted eyes with the newest lips, in fact the more you are involved the more you need to stay involved.

Unlike the rigid development cycles of the past there is no finish line and even no real cycle.

How “Open” is Open Source Android?
Android has an amazing blood lineage, it is after all just another in a long line of unified LINUX environments, with the distinction of a committed commercial entirety. And like all open source projects, consensus on direction remains the greatest challenge. In the past this has born many amazing projects that we take for granted today, such as Wikis and Blogs. (Wikipedia, WordPress)

So while all code for an open source project must be published, your intent and direction is of course up to you. This is where Android is probably the greatest challenge to an IFE industry.

Google has a real commercial agenda in this project and it aggressively develops code to match that goal, but this agenda is not public.

If you, for instance, take today’s Android build you have no guarantee that your changes will either be incompatible or superseded by Google’s next release. The code is OPEN but the future is all Google’s.

Product Life Cycle

Of course it is not unique to have issues with the Google ‘Overlord’ approach to Android, however the terrestrial user of Android devices expects to replace them every few years, in-fact the manufacturers on average drop support for hardware in 2-3 years of release.

IFE has a 10-15 year lifecycle; this in terrestrial terms would be like having a device that runs Internet Explorer 4.0 today.

Hundreds of Thousands of Applications?
As any owner of an Android device will tell you, it is not as simple as going to the Google store and installing any application. Unlike unified devices, Android devices don’t run a single “latest” version of Android. Combined with unlimited hardware differences and manufacturers’ own tinkering of the Android code base, most applications require case-by-case integration. When adding to this the lengthy hardware cycles, very specialized requirements and international licensing required for an IFE system, the large portfolio of Android applications realistically is no more than a wish list.

The constant changing Android code base and the unique aspects of IFE challenge the notion of “off the shelf”.

The Challenge and the Payoff
The challenge is that the industry that has born Android is so disparately different to the IFE world in process and approach, but without the change required to successfully adopt an OS like Android, the seat-back IFE will lag so far behind the passenger expectations it will be relegated to history.

*Interestingly enough there is a movement as shown by WAEA becoming APEX to rebrand the industry inflight experience.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!