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Sharing a platform

When it comes to keeping abreast of fast-moving technological developments affecting the inflight entertainment and connectivity sector, it is all about the platform. Kerry Reals reports
 

 

It was a need to evolve beyond the traditional, inflexible onboard entertainment system – toward a more modular, scalable approach – which might be more readily adapted to meet changing customer requirements – that drove Panasonic Avionics to develop its recently-announced NEXT platform.


Driven by a similar impulse, rival IFEC giant Thales Group is developing an open platform of its own, aimed at providing a more thorough integration of the traditional IFE product with rapidly-evolving inflight connectivity technology. Panasonic formally unveiled its NEXT platform at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg in April, describing it as a solution that “blends the latest in inflight entertainment technology, connectivity services and consumer technologies, to help airlines reach their business objectives."


By offering a more flexible approach, whereby different functions can effectively be layered onto the system as and when required, Panasonic says it can help airlines “maximise their investment by dramatically extending the lifespan of the IFEC platform." In other words, the IFE hardware in which airlines have invested millions is less likely to become obsolete as technology continues its relentless forward march. “The whole principle behind NEXT is changing the way we do business,” says Jon Norris, Senior Director – Corporate Sales & Marketing at Panasonic.


“Typically, IFEC systems have been rigid. But airlines are looking for Longevity. How can the system remain relevant to what they want to deliver to the passenger?” The hardware that will form the backbone of the platform is being developed in such a way that airlines will be able to “layer on different items”


from Panasonic’s ecosystem of value-added services, tools, applications and partnerships. This ecosystem includes the company’s Ku-band satellite-based connectivity network. By adding to the platform items from the ecosystem – such as Panasonic’s Companion App technology and ZeroTouch real-time content delivery service – airlines will be able to offer “high levels of passenger personalisation”, the company says. By combining IFE functions with connectivity in a single platform, Panasonic is creating a one-stop-shop which it believes presents a more attractive option to airlines than buying two separate systems from two different providers and integrating them; as Norris says:

 

“Choosing from separate vendors gives a sub-optimal solution.”


While NEXT aims to provide a more individually-tailored passenger experience, the key benefit to airlines is flexibility. “Once you’ve made your initial selection, if in five years you want to modify it – to change screens, for example – you can do it in a more flexible manner than you can today,” says Norris. “Systems tended to be very rigid before but we’re moving away from that.”


Whereas in the past the IFE industry tended to talk about “what a system does, rather than what it is”, Norris says the question airlines are now asking is: “What does it give me?”


“We continue to evolve in terms of technology and which features to introduce. The beauty of this is that we’re not tied down,” he notes.

 

One of the key trends at the centre of the NEXT platform is the Internet of Things, or the connecting of different devices over the internet. “Imagine you can synchronise your smartphone with the seatback screen. This could include frequent flyer information, food and beverage or entertainment preferences, so that you have a personalised experience,” says Norris, adding that this passenger personalisation and interaction is “a very big part” of the thinking behind NEXT.

 

Panasonic is planning to launch the platform on the Boeing 777X when it enters service in late 2019 or early 2020, but it will be available for all widebody and narrowbody airframes. Norris says the 777X NEXT installation will be “shortly followed” by other Boeing and Airbus widebodies and then narrowbodies. Panasonic is “actively talking” to other aircraft manufacturers about installing the platform on different airframes. In terms of an airline launch customer for NEXT, Norris says that Panasonic is “in significant conversations with a number of airlines” but cannot provide a timeline as to when the first customer might be announced. However, he notes that with the 777X set to enter service in 2019 or 2020, “decisions would have to be taken by airlines in the next months”.


Thales has drawn the same conclusions as Panasonic about the direction in which the IFEC market is moving, and is developing a platform approach of its own. Speaking at a press conference at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg earlier this year, Thales InFlight Entertainment and Connectivity Chief Executive Officer Dominique Giannoni said the market was moving away from IFE hardware to solutions based on an “engagement platform”.

 

“The market and the passenger experience are evolving fast and our solution needs to evolve as fast as the passenger experience evolves. Aircraft are connected and passengers expect fresh content, a personalised experience and engagement,” says Giannoni.


This calls for a “very reliable hardware and software architecture”, access to “a whole ecosystem”, and partnerships with design agencies to “help design interfaces”, he adds. Thales announced in October its InFlyt Experience Application Portal, a web-based solution which the company says will enable airlines to frequently  refresh onboard content without the need to carry out a major software upgrade.

 

“To keep passengers entertained, airlines have to enhance their offering with the most trending applications and games on their IFE systems, knowing that they have to face a tremendous increase in the number of applications and a rapid change in those that are most in-demand,” Thales says on its website.

 

“Traditionally, onboard games/applications may take up to a year from licence acquisition to certification on an IFE platform, integration to airline programmes, and ultimately boarding the aircraft. Due to this long process, there is a large gap between what is released to the market and the current content offering on board. Thanks to the Thales Application Portal, airlines will be able to offer their passengers their favourite applications on air.” >>


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