After a recent trip back to Australia, I was reminded why the IFE industry exists and how the terrestrial personal technology revolution is still so far ahead.

This story begins with a 15 hour journey, in a place where time stands still* as you leave earth, captive in an aluminum tube, with your space defined by a personal 16G rated plastic and metal cage. “Have a nice flight,” said the gate agent. Hmmm?

Firstly, I am not going to name names or critique the experience specifically. Suffice it to say, onboard the system was the latest generation of IFE and it worked flawlessly as designed, and maybe that is what spurred my interest in writing this article.

The design of the interface was pretty; of course, the airlines have clever people work on that. But as you start to navigate, you realize that half of the functions are “Coming Soon”…’soon’ as in later in the flight or ‘soon’ as in 2015? This was no corporate web site! When was the last time you went to a site with an “under construction” page that was not your grandma’s online family tree? []

Next, you make a beeline for the movie selection, and once again, clever people create “Movies” and then compile the onboard content so the selection is a good mix of latest releases and those culturally significant for the region of the airline. Once you start “Play” your selection appears quickly and exhibits decent quality, but this is no TIVO®! You get slow and incomprehensible controls with a poor mix of touchscreen and hand controller integration. All the functions do work once you “get it”. Next, you find “Pause” so the human body functions can be accommodated without missing any of the action. Finally, after spending 4-6 hours in movies, and eating random “dinner(s)” for breakfast, you can now move on to “Other Features”.

Ah “Games”! Indeed, the flip side of your controller in your seat looks like it has borrowed parts from your old SNES, so you boot up a “3D graphics” car racing game, you suddenly wish you had your SNES with you! With that a wash, you try a well-known puzzle game that you also have on you iDevice. It clunks along with no touchscreen support and no recording of scores (to narcissistically post your latest score to your “social network”). This is no modern lightweight gaming platform; your phone has better games!

Moving right along, to your surprise there is a selection of modern style “Chat” apps: “Seat-to-Seat” and a “Chat Room”, despite the obvious fact that the person willing to chat with you is probably sitting right next to you. Starved for your tech connection, you sit and wait in the “chat room” and then even try to initiate a chat with your travel buddy, but alas, they are too busy watching another movie and apparently they are more patient than you. Nothing happens, and since this entertained you for slightly less time than a trip to bathroom, you move on.

It crosses your mind; “I wonder what is happening back on earth?” But not even a skerrick of information that is anymore relevant than the beginning of last quarter’s movie cycle is available, or if you are lucky, you might get yesterday’s video news magazine.

After opening the help screen and frantically trying to navigate directly to every feature, you find the “Inflight Survey”… all 20 questions. If you still have not been able to tell them what you really think, you give up, grab your personal device, plug it into the in-seat USB power and settle back into your routine, while contemplating the term “captive audience”. Indeed, the term “captive audience” would not cover half of the feeling you get in flight as you disappear off the grid, time-warp to the 80’s of non interactive computing, while flicking through the non movie content of the IFE. But hey, it is far better than it used to be. My experience was not bad, as most IFE now is well in-tuned with its core Video on Demand. Today’s IFE is a reliable source of non-interactive content. The challenge for the IFE industry is to remain relevant beyond VOD by opening up their platforms, possibly embracing the 99 cent app development paradigm (or small interactive inexpensive lightweight applications), with possibly limited connectivity, say something like an Android “social network” or chat application. This will immediately allow the clever people of the terrestrial world to finally break into the closed IFE world and, at least to this modern traveler, make the IFE seem more in-touch with modern personal computing experiences.

Editors Note: We wanted to be sure we got the punch line so we presented Symonty with a few questions:

Editor: Your thesis then is, present day IFE does not provide much functionality beyond VOD, that is, interactivity really exists only in the controls between the pax and the server?

Symonty: “There is no interactive content, interactivity is of course between the server and the SVDU to, say, pause a movie, but real interactivity is non existent from a modern pax perspective.”

Editor: Connectivity is limited, if available at all, correct?

Symonty: “If basic connectivity is available some airlines don’t even use the existing system to, say, get your headline news or maybe allow off aircraft chat!”

Editor: Therefore, interacting with social networks while flying is virtually nonexistent, right?

Symonty: “Correct. This solution would require a very small amount of data and is totally possible…the data required is virtually nothing.”

Editor: In your estimation could the “app” concept alone provide the needed upgrade, if the platforms supported it… and connectivity were provided?

Symonty: “The app concept would give them hundreds of relevant games updated continuously, the app system is not just 99c paradigm, along with it comes the “sandboxing” of applications so you can do anything you like on your hardware without effecting it’s functionality (By the way, this would be relevant to the FAA requirements, since no app can go beyond simple SVDU functions). No Android app could do anything more than show things on the local display, much like applications on your phone today cannot steal your contacts or make phone calls etc.”

For more on adoption of android for the next gen seatback see The Androids Are Coming.

* Einstein’s theory of relativity states that a body in motion move in time relatively slower, where as “ground hog day” theory is that if you fall a sleep on a flight you will always wake up back at the start of the flight.

BREAKING NEWS: Look for a European announcement that will cheer IMS!