The Volatile Landscape

There are few environments left on Earth that remain shut off from the march of consumer technology. Mêdog County in the Tibet Autonomous Region was one such place – untouched by the modern world, until 2013, it was the last region in China without a road leading into it. Here, the volatile landscape crushes attempts at progress beneath the chaos of mudslides and avalanches. Nature itself is the arbiter of change, not man.

Extreme environments are no strangers to our lives. Our stratosphere is clogged with flying objects – up to 10,000 commercial aircraft, 3,000 satellites and millions of drones. These gleaming hulks have their own lifespan, their guts and skin aging under the sun – and in service for as long as 25–30 years in the case of passenger aircraft.

The half-lives of aircraft and satellites decline in parallel. As occupants of an extreme environment, they are insanely expensive to launch, maintain and upgrade. So they eke out their existences until they reach minimum viability. Along the way the customer experience degrades and degrades until customer relations reaches breaking point and they are replaced or upgraded. But increasingly on aircraft, it’s not the overhead lockers, or the toilets that look out-of-date, it is the entertainment systems embedded in the back of the seats, and the Wi-Fi connectivity options on your mobile device.

Hardware Eats Itself

Since the dawn of the new millennium, the pace of change in consumer electronics and networked computing has expanded exponentially. Mobile devices are our default screens. If consumers are to care about another screen it has to offer significantly more – not just in size but also in utility, resolution and processing power. This is the battle fought daily by a niche hardware industry built around entertaining passengers’ inflight.


“Clouds (5)” Kurdistann, Wikimedia Commons

Marketers and promoters have been bringing video into the inflight environment ever since a projector was first lumped aboard an Aeromarine Airways flight in 1921. From projectors to overhead screens to video-on-demand systems, inflight entertainment (IFE) systems must have seemed cutting edge. Fast-forward to 2016 and the entire IFE industry continues to grow around the screwing in of screens, cables and servers to aircraft, and the provision of video and audio content to on-board hardware that is well out-of-date before the aircraft has left the factory, let alone after many years’ of service.

Inflight Entertainment Lives-On

The slow upgrade process of aircraft and inflight services protects the industry’s solution providers from the disruptive change that businesses on the ground have faced over the last 20 years. Thus, the long-term absence of fast and affordable inflight connectivity, for the meanwhile shields this world from major change.

Inflight connectivity has evolved slowly because it is inextricably tied to the satellite networks high above the aircraft and ground-to-air networks far below. Using current technology, these networks cannot hope to deliver the Internet to 300 people aboard a moving target, at speeds that keep pace with our ever-increasing, unilateral hunger for data-heavy content.

Airplane in flight

“Airplane-takeoff-blue-sky-clouds-925837” by StockSnap, Pixabay

The latest systems bring the inflight environment closer to the reality on the ground – a world where everyone might one-day stream content from a global content delivery network. However, the costs of transmitting that much data to- and-from an aircraft are also, quite simply, out of this world. What’s more, by the time these connectivity systems are installed on a significant number of aircraft, they will be well on their way to obsolescence.

Locally stored content streamed over the Wi-Fi connection to passenger devices is one option being explored by a number of airlines. This approach relies upon a heavily configured local environment with hundreds of servers flying around on the airline’s fleet and content accessed through a customer’s pre-downloaded application. Sound complicated? It is.

So How Do Airlines Really Cut the Cord?

I work at a content and entertainment agency (Spafax, also the publishers of Sparksheet) that grapples with these problems. We have watched the VOD market on the ground evolve as Netflix and traditional broadcasters become increasingly indistinguishable as they have both borrowed from each other’s product, customer acquisition strategies and technology. Content owners and aggregators have unilaterally adopted cord-cutting technology and app-driven streaming TV. However, linear broadcast TV remains strong. If anything, we are just watching more TV in more ways, both in groups and individually, than ever before. But more and more of that content is consumed though apps and web services.

Boeing 777 IFE System

“Boeing 777-2DZ-LR, AN1940838” Alex Beltyukov, Wikipedia

If branded inflight entertainment is to survive long-term, it has to mimic consumer behaviour on the ground. It has to whole-heartedly adopt cord-cutter technology, leveraging the content delivery networks, services and applications built to power the likes of Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go. From a tech perspective, the future for branded entertainment is connected entertainment. But the inflight environment also creates a unique opportunity from a content perspective – where brands can cherry pick content from an unrestricted universe that the Netflixes of the world can only dream about. This is today’s IFE on steroids- a combination of traditional and new multi-format digital content that is curated and served to passengers in new ways. Here, the future is to deliver a dynamic, relevant, personalized experience for travellers still eager to optimize their highly prized me time.

This mix of technology and content opportunity is why my company works with Piksel, an Over-the-Top (OTT) TV provider, to deliver downloadable entertainment apps for airlines. Our Voyage applications deliver content pre-flight to passengers own devices direct from the cloud, not only extending engagement off the aircraft, but personalising the content to the individual and enabling live updates and a dynamic entertainment experience. These entertainment apps have more in common with iTunes than the VCR systems still inflight on some aircraft. They require no on-board hardware, come with no strings and enable you to launch an entertainment service to all passengers instantly— without grounding a single aircraft.

In the wilds of Mêdog County in Tibet, man eventually tamed the extreme environment. The same will become true for inflight video. Software-only video solutions are the future for the inflight world, as much as they are for the consumer world at large. Seatback screens will live on long-term in some scenarios, but just like a TV screen plugged into an Apple TV, the real computing power and content strategy will be driven by the cloud.