Illustration: Angélica Geisse

The era of digital transformation has unleashed a wealth of opportunities for industry stakeholders to work together via open platforms. But what does this mean for seatback IFE makers who have traditionally gone solo?

While in-flight entertainment (IFE) companies like Thales, Panasonic Avionics Corporation (PAC) and Burrana have traditionally gone it alone, it’s becoming clear that playing well with others is not just good for business but essential to moving forward.

“In the past, companies talked a lot more about collaboration than they actually did it at times,” says Burrana CEO David Withers. “However, I have to say that, increasingly, there’s a number of smaller providers that are able to innovate very rapidly. We were once one of those, and now we’ve carved out our own position as a result. As we grow, we’re turning to more of them that are bringing real innovation.”

“What all of us are aspiring to do … is to create an open interface between us and those that want to create content.” – David Withers, Burrana

One such example, notes Withers, is Burrana’s recently inked deal with Signal Lamp Entertainment, whose ad serving platform, Ad Republic, is available on Burrana’s Paves and Glide IFE systems. “What all of us are aspiring to do, and certainly what Burrana is trying to do, is to create an open interface between us and those that want to create content,” says Withers. “We have a heritage that goes back to the very beginning of this industry, and we’ve seen a number of [technologies and standards] open and close and open again, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue to see elements of that.”

“You’re only one company – you’re not going to create a billion apps.” – Samir Lad, Panasonic Avionics

PAC’s divisional vice-president and head of Digital Architecture, Samir Lad, could not agree more, saying that even Apple (known for its closed operating system) has excelled at opening the way for innovation via third parties over the years. “Take a look at the iPhone. Apple only has a small amount of its own apps, but there are two million-plus apps in the App Store. So Apple created a platform for other developers to build on, and when you do this and start working across the verticals, stitching things together, suddenly … one plus one becomes four, versus two. That’s why [having an open platform] is so important, because you’re only one company – you’re not going to create a billion apps.”

PAC’s platform operates much in the same way, explains Lad, creating open APIs that anyone can subscribe to to get in front of passengers. “We want partners and we want to work with open arms and highlight their strengths.”

“We aren’t experts at everything, and we, as an industry, will fail if we try to do it all ourselves.” – Jerry Thomas, Thales

Jerry Thomas, director of Strategic Marketing at Thales, agrees that it can’t all be done alone: “We’ve tried as an industry to have closed systems, but what you end up with is old content or a promise that never materializes. We aren’t experts at everything, and we, as an industry, will fail if we try to do it all ourselves.”

Thomas cites Thales’ partnership with Airfree as a prime example of that philosophy – one that could also yield additional ancillary revenue for airlines. “We’re not duty-free experts, but we are well-positioned to help the airline. If we had a closed system, the cost of bringing Airfree in would make the profit margins go away, which means we wouldn’t be able to offer the service. So, ‘open’ is really just about making it easy to play nicely with others,” he says.

And though some airlines are moving away from traditional seatback IFE systems, Thales, PAC and Burrana agree that a continuing focus on hardware is key. But is hardware more important than software? “Hardware isn’t going away. It’s the foundation for how people receive their services, and we still believe that it has to be really good and reliable to offer a great passenger experience. But it also has to do a lot more than it did in the past,” says Thomas.

“I don’t like to think of it as hardware versus software,” Lad says, adding that we don’t think about our mobile devices in these compartmentalizing terms. “That’s the same kind of approach we are taking in avionics now,” he says.

After focusing for years on building best-in-class hardware with the ability to withstand the rigors of air travel, Lad says PAC has made a definite move toward adopting a platform approach like Facebook, Google and Apple. “The value increases immensely when you take a platform approach. We’ve always made embedded software, but now the paradigm is shifting more toward Internet of Things-enabled software and the data analytics to back it up. It is more of a vertically integrated solution that should solve passengers’ challenges, pains and make travel more seamless,” says Lad.

“Unlike the mobile or home environment, there still needs to be a little bit of infrastructure on the airplane to facilitate that new direction the airline wants to take with brand or content,” Withers says. “There is a real requirement for really good hardware, and that’s what we specialize in building and delivering. Hardware is still a significant part of our business – there’s no doubt about it.”

But as Withers points out, once that’s in place, it has become much more about what new functionality can be added, and that’s where the software and applications become really important. “Airlines want a future-proof technology base that they can build upon, and that lends itself, increasingly, to degrees of openness. It’s not just about the openness of the software but the openness of some of the interfaces in the hardware as well, enabling them to make upgrades rather than having to redo all of it,” Withers says. “Airlines want to be able to invest once or maybe twice in an airplane’s life and know that they’ve got a future-proof process.”

It’s the airlines themselves that are really driving the push toward open platforms and collaboration right now, Thomas says. Withers and Lad agree, all expecting a surge in new partnerships on the horizon.

“Passengers don’t know the difference between a Panasonic or a Thales IFE system, and airlines don’t want them to. We need to be able to make sure that
if we create a really nice feature, we are also able to work with a competitor’s solution on behalf of our airline customer,” Thomas says. “Airlines have adopted a multi-supplier strategy, and they’ve really forced us all to think more holistically about the passenger experience versus just the equipment.”

This is, after all, the reigning ideology behind today’s digital economy, where competitors double as partners, Thomas notes, adding, “That’s really what ‘open’ is; it’s not just about technology – it’s a philosophy.” And, at last, that philosophy is beginning to take root in commercial aviation. “We’ve been such a closed industry for such a long period of time, but now we are bringing more people from the outside and they come with new ideas. We are still competing, but we know that in the end it’s all about driving value to the airline.”

“Open for Business” was originally published in the 9.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.