18 Aug 2015 20:13 IST

In-flight systems beware, the future lies with Android

A win-win for the airlines and passengers, but current IFS makers must watch out or risk becoming obsolete

When most of us think of the Android operating system, smart phones and tablets come to mind. From an also-ran OS, released a few months after the launch of the first iPhone, the Android ecosystem now dominates the mobile market with its ubiquitous presence. Inexpensive devices running on the Android OS have helped write the obituaries of stand-alone devices such as calculators, low-end watches, digital organisers, eReaders, voice recorders, GPS systems, FM radios, music players, DVD players, cameras and even camcorders. Even mighty Microsoft has grudgingly admitted defeat.

Last month, Microsoft was forced to take a write-off on its disastrous acquisition of once-venerable Nokia and report its first ever operating loss.

The comparison to Microsoft is ironic because Android's success has largely been the result of Google blatantly copying Microsoft's own strategy in the PC OS market.

By largely focusing resources on the operating system and giving it away for free to handset manufacturers, Google has built an enviable lead in market share. This lead attracts thousands of third-party developers to innovate and make valuable apps which bolster the brand, strengthening the network effect.

This, in turn, drives even more traffic to Google's bread and butter search engine, fattens profits from sales on its Playstore and drives Google to invest even more to improve its OS.

Up in the air

Now, one more unlikely industry is likely to fall prey to Android technology - the staid, in-flight system industry that has for long informed and entertained millions of air travellers worldwide. Older aircraft, still flying the skies, have the simplest version of this system - a few strategically placed television monitors in the airline cabin all showing the same content, cutting to a freeze-frame when the cabin crew makes announcements.

More modern renditions, add some consumer choice through individual seatback systems that allow the passenger to select from a small inventory of movies, music and games, using a handheld device with a wire impossibly stowed away in the seat itself. Flight maps continue to be presented in a format that has been standard for nearly 25 years – a pre-programmed rolling screen that provides altitude, ground speed and information on distance travelled with a map that zooms in on the over-flight points of the route.

Futuristic in-flight system

In short, these monstrous systems deserve to become irrelevant, displaced by more innovative in-flight offerings.

Last month, on a long, 15-hour non-stop from Hong Kong to Dallas on American Airlines’ newly retrofitted fleet of Boeing 777-300 aircraft; I saw the beginnings of what such a futuristic in-flight system (IFS) might look like.

Every seatback screen on this plane is an Android tablet networked to a local server, with its familiar swipe, pinch and zoom interface. Tapping the ‘Entertainment’ icon opens up three choices: movies, TV and games. The movies icon alone showed over 280 titles, searchable using Android’s search icon, all instantly available on demand, many with closed captions. Exiting the movie screen to discover another part of the IFS was flawless. A pointer remembered where you left off so that you could return to your movie at will.

In the unlikely event that the server doesn’t offer you sufficient titles, each tablet comes with a USB port. Plug in your favourite USB drive into the tablet and you will have access to your own media. If passengers are feeling social, the seat-to-seat chat feature enables them to text each other, even in groups, and play games.

The built-in Chrome browser allows you to go online, if you are willing to pay up to $15 for internet access on the plane’s WiFi system.

For the aviation buff, the ‘My Flight’ icon was a boon. 3-D maps provided detail using different views - total flight, mid-flight, a view from above, and one from the window. If you wanted more information on a location, all you had to do was to tap the screen and pinch out to zoom in. Text information about the flight was always available.

The e-Reader icon opened up a list of ‘American Way’ titles - the airline’s popular seat-back magazine. American not only saves a lot of money by not printing these glossy publications but saves weight by not carrying editions in each seat. There is now never a need for flight attendants to replace issues taken away by departing passengers. And the airline can claim bragging rights for saving trees and going green. The e-Reader also had options to read newspapers and magazines, but clearly American had not subscribed to any publications. We will have to endure seeing newspaper carts outside aircraft doors for some more years yet.

Disruptive innovation

They say disruptive innovation comes from all quarters. The Android-based IFS has the potential to save airlines big money on managing content from headquarters while offering passengers so much choice that long flights end relatively quickly. And there’s another advantage: if customers are busy with their screens, they are less likely to complain about all the other amenities that the airlines have taken away from passengers over the years.

A win-win for the airlines and passengers, but current IFS manufacturers may have to watch out or risk going the way of typewriter companies.

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