Can embedded IFE survive distribution without borders?


It’s no secret that the aircraft finance and leasing crowd are not big fans of inflight entertainment systems – indeed they consider IFE to be worth virtually “nothing” in the aftermarket. And you can be sure that anything worth nothing in the aftermarket means nothing to these guys.

That’s why I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear attendees of the recent ISTAT conference bemoan embedded systems while sipping a few post-conference cocktails at the San Diego Marriott.

Hardware complaints seem to be hardly worth mentioning. We all know some airlines – like the lessors that own their aircraft – would love nothing better than to get rid of embedded systems and embrace a completely wireless world (some seat designers would love a wireless world as well).

But we also know that Hollywood’s decision to retain a ‘windows of release’ system for its movie content – and disallow the streaming of early window content to passengers’ own devices – is among the reasons why embedded systems remain a going concern (also driving retention are inflight connectivity capacity constraints, in-seat power limitations, and the fact that IFE serves to distract passengers who are seated in super-snug seating configurations in economy class).

Even Airbus and Boeing think embedded IFE will keep on ‘staying alive, staying alive’…at least for the time being.

With that said, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that people increasingly dislike the idea of adhering to a ‘windows of release’ for any content. They want instant gratification. Instant access. In my own home, I am a hair’s breath away from shutting off cable TV entirely and simply streaming the Internet to the big screen (the cable company still wins since it supplies my Internet connection). Naturally, we’ll keep the larger screen on the wall, just as some airlines would keep their seat-back monitors even if Hollywood permitted the streaming of early window content to passengers’ own devices. It’s a comfort factor, after all.

But in a social media driven world, the fact that anyone is trying to control content right now seems down right antiquated to some, including some of the guys at the aforementioned post-ISTAT conference cocktail reception. Mark Wilson serves as executive VP of digital design firm Envision (which is decidedly not related to aircraft leasing). But while chairman Philip Meeson nodded in approval, Wilson predicated the following:

“The people trying to control content are going to lose, it’s all about distribution. People don’t mind paying for content, but [they expect] distribution without borders. So what that means is, for someone like me, I’m English, I live in Canada, I like to watch BBC, Sky, I’m perfectly prepared to pay for it, but there are so many barriers predicated on international content versus domestic content. So what a lot of people do [in Canada] is they end up getting VPNs [to watch British TV]. There is no way content owners can control how people get to watch their distributed content. Having VPN on the side allows me to watch the stuff in the UK, but I’d rather just pay for it.

“So my VPN says my IP address is in the UK, and the BBC is governed by this charter and so they’re not allowed to sell their rights overseas, and they have BBC America but it’s very limited content. There are so many people who would pay to subscribe to the BBC.

“At the moment the people who own the content are trying to control content by putting up unsustainable barriers to people who are trying to reach it, so there is this constant push and pull of people who are trying to bypass the barriers. So if people who owned content understood distribution better and had a mentality that was less protectionist and more commercial, they would probably be more [prepared] because that’s the way it’s going to go.”

Many IFE insiders would, of course, scoff at the idea that anyone will ever sway Hollywood to reconsider its ‘windows of release’ system. By god the Theater! Even Meeson concedes it’s nice to take the missus on a dinner date and a movie for the experience.

“But everything about content and distribution relates as directly to airlines as it does to your cable company, Mary,” says Wilson.