The objective of this article is to provide our readers a better perspective on portable IFE. To get the ball rolling, we gave a few questions to the affable Adam Williams of digEcor.

What is the current state of the portable IFE market?

The IFE industry has changed quite a bit over the last several years. Traditional systems are becoming more sophisticated and lighter. Connectivity emerged, died and is making a strong come back. And new seat centric systems are creating a lot of buzz. Portable IFE is moving right along with the market. We are experiencing evolutions in technology (in part driven by consumer electronics) and continuing to fill a large need that seat back systems do not fill due to cost, age of aircraft, and the needs of specific routes. Of the approximately 13,500 commercial aircraft in service today, only about 6,000 are being serviced by traditional systems. In the last 12 months, we have literally sold 1,000’s of digEplayer L7’s. That didn’t happen because our market is softening.

What future developments might impact the portable IFE market?

There are two trends that will have an impact on portable IFE – consumer electronic devices and connectivity. The experience that passengers have on the ground with their own devices sets the expectations for the in-flight entertainment experience, and that’s not unique to handhelds. So companies like Apple and Google are setting a standard. The standard, though, is not having a huge impact on IFE rental and use rates. Many passengers still prefer to use the in-flight system rather than a personal device (for reasons such as battery life and content availability). I heard someone say today, “My phone is capable of playing music. But I still have a stereo in my home.”

With connectivity in the picture, you have to wonder if IFE, handheld or otherwise, still makes sense. To date, the data shows that connectivity uptake rates remain low. What connectivity does offer though, is the ability to increase the functionality and profitability of a handheld offering. For example, you can now transact in real time (15% of flyers get on a plane hoping to rent a car once they land) and serve targeted advertisements. So coupling connectivity with a handheld system strengthens the offering to passengers.

Are there any new software products for the portable IFE market?

Consumer operating systems, such as Android, are seeing some penetration in concept, but no one is flying it yet. Most new software products are in the form of applications that enhance the functionality of the device and ancillary revenue opportunities (such as shopping, destination guides, etc).

How important is connectivity to the portable IFE market?

Connectivity is a big opportunity to bring new applications and revenue streams to portable devices. The connection is an enabler, not the detractor some feared.

What software products are most used on portable IFE and do you see a change in the near future (ie games, movies, email)?

I think a lot of us in the industry love thinking outside of the box and creating new applications and services. Though our experience shows that the number one thing people want to do with IFE is just watch movies. It’s like buying a smartphone these days. When my wife and I got ours last Fall, we looked at all of the cool features and applications that we can download. Though we had to stop and evaluate each device on one core question – how easy is it to make a phone call? We walked away from some phones because making a phone call wasn’t easy. IFE should first and foremost make watching a high-quality movie easy.

Does portable IFE have a bright future and if so why, if not, why?

Admittedly, there is a lot of innovation and shifting going on in the market today. However, portables are designed to address specific market needs. Those needs, like IFE in business class on just a select few routes, are not going away in the foreseeable future. So portables will continue to have a place in the market.

What do airlines think about the programming, charging, and managing portable handout? Is this about to change?

There are obviously logistical needs that are unique to portables. Changing content, charging batteries, and cleaning players has an operational impact, just as would the introduction of any other system to an aircraft. Fortunately, we have years of experience in managing this process. So we are able to limit that impact by working with the airline and airline partners. Also, we are constantly working to make these processes faster and easier.


I love them.

What is the impact to portable IFE fostered by the rise in handheld tablets?

Handheld tablets have three direct impacts on portable IFE. First, they are setting a standard and passenger expectation. Second, IFE providers have to consider the popularity and developer support communities that exist around consumer operating systems and applications. And third, tablets are replacing portable IFE in some situations (e.g. American Airlines). The buzz around tablet devices is a strong enticer. Our experience with airlines is that there is interest from a an airline marketing standpoint but the operational inefficiencies from tablet PCs usually dissuade airlines. However, there will always be the American Airlines and Jetstars of the world that want to take on those issues hoping for a return in other areas. And I understand and respect that decision. So we, as IFE providers, simply need to be ready to help address the issues that tablets inherently bring with them.

About the time we asked Adam to comment on the portable market, American Airlines announced that they were planning to use a Samsung, Android-based tablet for their upper class in-flight entertainment. Therefore, we contacted Michael Childers (IFE industry consultant) about Android OS-based portables and he told IFExpress: “I believe that the significance of American Airlines’ selection of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 is in the choice of platform more so than the device. The Android open source platform stands in marked contrast to the Apple iOS proprietary platform. Basing a product line on an operating system rather than on a specific device seems to have much greater potential, as does using open source rather than proprietary technology.”

He also noted, “The Android operating system is based on Linux, and is the world’s best-selling Smartphone platform.  The Android operating system has ostensibly found its way into IFE product announcements by Thales and Panasonic last year at the APEX Conference. If for no other reason than for the difference between the proprietary iOS platform and the Android open source platform, I believe that the Android-based offering will enjoy greater success in the IFE space than iPads.”

“Another restricting factor of the iPad and iOS platform is in Apple’s business model. Even though they’ve made some recent modifications, Apple architected its iTunes content ingestion path to support a model in which Apple participates in the content revenue stream. Some content providers have deals in place with Apple for the sale of content to consumers through iTunes that restricts them from providing content to an iPad by a means that bypasses iTunes ingestion. With no such restrictions limiting the Android OS, and with an open source versus proprietary infrastructure, it seems to me that Android devices will assume the position in IFE that many thought the iPad would.”

Another industry observer, who wished to remain anonymous, offered this comment: “My strong feeling is that OS-based solutions make more sense than device-based solutions, and open source platforms are much easier to deal with than proprietary platforms. I’ve always had reservations about iPads in IFE for these kinds of reasons. As you know, one airline announced 15 months ago that it would board iPads and trialed them a year ago. By the time that the device was re-purposed, however, iPad 2 had been released. The airline changed its plans to release the iPad 2, but it still isn’t deployed. In another two or three months, according to reports, the iPad 3 will be coming out. If it takes three generations to re-purpose the device for IFE, what’s the point!” (Editor’s Note: As far as we know, there is not consensus from the movie studios on the issue of hosting early window content on a closed operating system.)

Symonty Gresham of SymonTek made the following comments when queried on this subject: “The continued trials of custom loaded “off the shelf” tablet devices (iPad and Android based) marks a significant departure from the traditional IFE model. It not only reduces the reliance of specialized avionics equipment it is a fundamental shift for airlines to take on direct responsibility of the entertainment quality in the cabin. It is also a call to action to the suppliers of both equipment and content to prove their worth in a changing environment, where the passenger gets what they want and the airline relinquishes some of the “duty of care” of the total experience, in favor of the cost saving in an of the shelf offering.The greatest drawbacks are in-compatibility of the aircraft environment/process and the rapidly changing consumer electronics product range/standards and the reduced control airlines will have over the entire experience but these maybe trumped by the sheer reduction in cost.”

Lastly, on a mostly unrelated topic: Our old friend Neil Morgan is looking for a new challenge. Anyone seeking an experienced IFE Sales and Marketing man should contact him on