In one of the most significant announcements at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo, Panasonic Avionics revealed the structural model for NEXT, its successor to the market-leading eX family of inflight entertainment systems. With few details available at this early stage — delivery is planned to coincide with the 777X in late 2019 or early 2020 timeframe — some industry observers were underwhelmed by the lack of new boxes, screens or demo software, but in the long-leadtime industry world of inflight entertainment, key customers are enthusiastic about the direction of travel.
“It’s been really, really positive, and very, very interesting,” Jon Norris, senior director of corporate sales and marketing, tells Runway Girl Network. “The industry is changing. For years and years we’ve all been talking about what [inflight entertainment] is: talking about boxes and speeds and feeds, etcetera, and where we are getting to. The feedback we are getting from airlines is that it’s much more now what it does.”
“When you go and talk to airlines — as we have in rolling out next-generation IFEC, talking for example, to the early 777X customers — if you are talking to C-level execs, you start talking to Chief Information Officers and start talking to Chief Digital Officers, and they are not really interested in the boxes,” Norris notes. “They are much more from an IT digital connected background, and they are looking at how it can be monetised, how it can drive value.”
From those executives’ point of view, “it’s all about how do you enhance value from that IFEC acquisition over a longer period of time,” Norris says, “because in essence, that’s how airlines are looking at things: it’s not just about what’s cheapest or what’s the most premium. It’s what return does this give me, does it address my business outcomes, does it do what I want it to do — and then can I flexibly change what it does over time? It’s a very cyclical industry, and things change.”
Part of that cyclical nature is around software updates, as forward-thinking airlines have learned as they upgrade the OS of older IFEC systems to give a new lease of life without the capital expenditure of a full hardware replacement.
“In an ideal world you would like to make features and functionality hardware agnostic so that you can continually spin and update on a more regular scheduled manner,” Norris says, highlighting “functionality updates without touching the hardware. I think that’s in essence one of the benefits of the NEXT platform, one in which we are trying to move from rigidity to flexibility, exactly that.”
The questions airlines are asking, Norris explains, revolve around “‘how do I have a system that is more permanent and isn’t easily outdated as you go through time?’ That’s what we are trying to do: starting with a clean software stack, building the software stack in modular fashion, changing the way software is packaged and staged on the aircraft — actually being able to just update small elements within the software stack without having to re-do everything.”
Panasonic’s ZeroTouch content loading system should enable that sort of update, Norris says, given that system software updates are relatively small when compared with the size of movie or TV files used in consumer electronics — in the scale of a few hundred megabytes for the entire operating system currently. While this size may well grow with NEXT, the speed and flexibility of offering this kind of update over the air on ground wifi or 4G (or even over satellite connectivity) rather than requiring a visit from technical staff will be a massive win for airlines keen to reduce the speed at which they are being outpaced in usability by consumer electronics.