Southwest gets it (mostly) right for in-flight entertainment

Southwest recently announced a very different approach to providing in-flight entertainment. Partnering with dish network they will offer live TV and on-demand programming over the in-plane WIFI to people’s personal devices. Sadly, for now, it’s just Apple devices. I will presume they will extend this to other platforms, including laptops, soon, and they should consider also allowing you to rent a tablet one-way if you don’t have your own.

Everywhere else, we see airlines putting in “fancy” and expensive in-flight entertainment systems. In coach they use small screens in the headrests, and business class and 1st class seats have fairly large displays. I’ve tried a number of these, and uniformly, in spite of all the money, they suck compared to just having pre-loaded video on your own tablet, laptop or DVD player. Even your phone with its small screen is better. Why?

  • Almost every one of the systems I’ve seen has been badly written and underpowered, resulting in atrociously slow response time and poor UI
  • The ones that charge you sit there all flight advertising to you if you don’t pay. Clever people can figure out how to turn off the screen, but it doesn’t matter, because most of the other screens are this very distracting synchronized spam video. Worse, during boarding, they turn up the audio on this ad.
  • They pause your video for every little announcement, including non-safety announcements, spam to shop duty free or join the FF club, and translations of announcements into other languages. I can almost accept doing this for safety announcements (I would rather take a safety quiz online or at my seat and be free from the routine ones) but if you start your movie before take-off (which is a nice thing to do) you will be interrupted literally dozens of times.
  • The video, game and music selections are often quite lame compared to what you can get in any online store for your phone or tablet
  • The live TV has advertising in it, and you can’t FF or get up for a snack like at home. Unless its news or sports, why watch live?
  • There is often a surprisingly large box under the seat in every seat cluster for the in-flight computer. That takes away foot room and storage space and adds weight to the plane. Plus, why are the boxes so large — consider these devices seem to have far less power than a typical tablet?
  • If they have a touchscreen, the guy behind you is always pushing on the back of your seat. Otherwise they have a fairly hard to use hand remote (and for unknown reasons, long latency on button pushes.)
  • Disturbingly, movies are often played in the wrong aspect ratio on these screens, and you can’t do anything about it but watch fat characters.
  • The small screen ones tend to be fairly low resolution, mostly because they are older. Your phone or tablet is usually not that old and has HD resolution.

That’s a pretty astonishing list of failings. Your own tablet has one main downside — they force you to shut it off on takeoff and landing, for no good reason since tests all show a tablet does not interfere with the plane. It also may have battery limitations, though those are fixed with a USB charge port in the seatback. You do need to bring a stand for it, it would be nice if there were something on the seatback to mount your tablet. You would need an app to do plane-related stuff like the moving map or safety training.

What’s amazing is that all the other airlines have paid a lot of money to install these bad systems, and more to the point carry the weight of them everywhere. This is the classic battle between custom technology, which gets obsolete very quickly, and consumer technology like phones and tablets which are generic but replaced frequently so always modern. The consumer tech will always win, but people don’t realize that.

At first, they might have worried that they needed to provide a screen for everybody. This could easily have been solved with rentals, both out in the terminal and to a lesser extent on-board. Especially if you put in power jacks so recharge is not an issue.

Today the airlines would all be wise to tear out their systems and follow Southwest. I don’t care about the Dish Network streaming that much, but better (and more popular) would be on-board servers which offer a local version of the Google Play store and iTunes store containing the most popular movies and new releases. I venture those companies would be OK with providing that if allowed, and if not, somebody else would.

As a side note, let me say that it would be nice if the online movie stores offered a form of rental more amenable to flying. Most offer a 24 hour rental, which starts when you start playing (so you can download in advance.) However, they don’t offer the ability to start a movie on your flight out and finish it on your flight back. So you dare not start a rental movie unless you are sure you are going to finish it on the flight. Another case where the DRM doesn’t really match what people want to do. (I don’t want to “buy” the movie just to finish it later.)

I will admit one nice feature of the rental is that if I am on a flight, I can watch a movie, and that activates the same 24 hour rental period at home, so those at home can watch it there too. That way, if there is a movie we all wanted to see, we can all see it — if those at home are willing to watch it that particular day.

Southwest not yet supporting Android

I find Southwest to be, even after the death of its founder, the most innovative and friendly airline out there.

It's unfortunate that, so far, I can't use my Nexus 7 or my Android phablet to get movies. Not a compatible format (Quicktime??).

Hopefully they will fix that. Their web site says "specific Android devices" without naming them.

I'll try them again tomorrow on my flight to PDX.

Yes, IOS only

The press release said IOS only. And while they won’t support every device you might have, it’s still the right direction. They should just have cheap loaners of the devices they do support. (one reason to do Android, the devices are cheaper.)

Of course, supporting higher-current USB charging and having HTML5 and WebRTC based applications and video streaming is the way to support every device pretty soon. There won’t be much you want to do on a plane that needs a dedicated app. Moving map, drink orders, inter-seat mail and chat, audio, video and games should all be doable.

And they could put mini-servers on board with cached Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, Play Store, Amazon etc. That’s what I actually want, but the airline will of course want a piece.

But the main point is that the plane doesn’t have to provide that much. The personal tablet already has my games, audio and video. Why do we really need the airline to provide it? The airline should offer power, and an easy way to hold my device. It should also offer internet, of course, though they don’t seem ready to do that for free.

One nice trick is subsidized internet. For example, I was on one flight where you could get to Google without paying for the internet access, but not to the rest of the net. Presumably subsidized by Google.

Variety != spice of tablet life

While the broad variety of chipsets used in Android devices can be seen as providing "choice," from the airlines' perspective it's much more difficult to provide support across all that different hardware than it is for the relatively narrow set of graphics chips and processors used in iPads.

They're always going to want an amount of control over access, so they're more inclined to provide content via their own apps.

Regarding WebRTC, it appears Google open sourced it over two years ago in 2011, but it's still only supported on Android and in Chrome on PCs. There's no way the airlines would move towards something that isn't supported on iPads, as that's surely the major tablet device used by most of their customers. With Google pushing webM as the codec for WebRTC they're making Apple less inclined to adopt it, and Microsoft doesn't want to go there, either, since they want to leverage technologies from Skype.

Anyway, if the airlines were going to do a non-app solution for video streaming they could do so right now using HTML5 and H.264. That's already supported everywhere. So clearly they don't see the incentive right now.

As for loaner devices, current cheap Android tablets don't appear to have much longevity, as they are, after all, cheap. I think airlines would prefer to buy loaner devices that they knew were going to last more than just six to twelve months before becoming obsolete or unreliable. Plus Android devices have a very poor track record when it comes to vendor-provided software updates.

Quantas, Jetstar, Finnair, Scoot, and maybe others have already tried out iPad loaner programs.

Additionally, American Airlines and JetBlue are trying out using iPads to replace flight bags. ANA, British Airways and KLM are equipping cabin crews with iPads. ANA, Cathay Pacific, Delta, and others are trying out iPads in airport lounges and restaurants. I'm sure it would make sense from their standpoint to standardize on iPads as a single platform across terminals, staff, crew, and loaner devices for passengers.

Then consider that the most popular Android and Android-derived tablets, Amazon's Kindle Fire and Google's Nexus 7, both have poor availability across the world outside of the U.S. So even if the airlines made special deals with Amazon or Google, they wouldn't have as much confidence in worldwide service, parts, and replacement availability. Plus most non-U.S. passengers would be completely unfamiliar with them as loaner devices. (Well, ok, even U.S. passengers aren't going to be all that familiar with them. :)

Finally, I don't think any of the players involved with Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, etc. are going to be too inclined to provide or allow cached content servers on planes. They want full control of it, coming from their own servers. Besides, what subset of the libraries would be available? Surely not the whole video library. If it's a subset, whose chooses what it is? How would this then be different from an existing limited selection of video content on a plane?

This is not to mention that the content providers/studios would probably look unkindly on this, since it inserts those 3rd party streaming services as a middleman between them and airlines, which many or most of them already have deals with. There are probably clauses in their contracts with those streaming providers that prohibit caching like this anyway.

Hulu etc in the air

Not sure why this would be a problem. A 4 TB drive is cheap and can hold 150 HD movies (a lot more SD and that’s all they give you now) which is a nice selection of new releases and classics. It’s only for people who didn’t remember to pre-load their own choice when they were on wifi somewhere.

The nice thing about things like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon is they have already done a lot of work to make sure they play on as many devices as possible. Well, except for Amazon and Hulu blocking TV connected devices. But they are good on tablets and laptops and phones.

There is no extra middleman. These companies sell you movies now, they would do it from a server they maintain on the plane, the only difference is it is local while in flight.

An airline can standardize on the iPad for its employees, but you can’t do that for the passengers. Passengers will bring what they have. You can decide to do the iPad only if you loan iPads to all the people who don’t have Apple.

"Oh, I see your problem!"

You're saying "Not sure why this would be a problem" about:

1. A simple technological solution
2. Something that Hollywood movie/TV studios would be involved in

1: Yeah, ok, sure. (Even then, though...) 2: Ha ha ha ha ha!

As far as airline tablet standardization, I was referring to possible loaner tablets. There are many disincentives to them buying Android tablets as loaners, which far outweigh their single advantage of being cheap.

The more I think about it

The more sense it makes to just do it all with open protocols found on all the major devices, HTML5, streaming mpegs or eventually webrtc, etc. Let people use all the major devices, no app to support or install. If you want to have loaners, you can focus on one particular one for simplicity.

Support for netflix, amazon, play store, iTunes, hulu would really be up to those companies if they want to cut a deal with the airline to put their server on a machine on the plane with local cache. Most of the time I want to pre-load my content, but I will agree there will be times when I can’t and it would be nice to use my service of choice with just a few dozen movies.

Already possible

Streaming h.264 via HTML5 is supported by all mobile devices. Just add web server/authentication/payment processing.

Done.*

*Yeah, right. "Technically possible" always winds up being maybe half the solution, at best.

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