Each New Year inevitably heralds a spate of predictions for the upcoming 12 months, though many prove to be wide of the mark. However in the case of in-flight entertainment (IFE) technology trends there’s an encouraging degree of consensus among industry analysts and consultants – and the picture they paint is an optimistic one.

"However in the case of in-flight entertainment (IFE) technology trends there’s an encouraging degree of consensus among analysts."

Until recently, the market has been dominated by major suppliers such as Panasonic and Thales, but that’s changing now with the entry of companies including Lumexis, SiT and Zodiac – on the retrofit as well as linefit sides – whose competitive presence and exploitation of advances in consumer electronics are helping drive down the weight and per-aircraft costs of IFE hardware.

This will boost uptake of the technology, said Robert Smith, senior market analyst at consultancy IMDC and author of its Inflight Technology Market Outlook 2012 report.

"Larger, twin-aisle aircraft dominate hardware expenditure, due partly to their high number of seats. As such, and given that deliveries of these aircraft are increasing, total expenditure is forecast to expand.

"A more interesting area of the market though is single-aisle aircraft, a sector in which the falling weight and cost of IFE make it more feasible to introduce the technology than ever before," he claimed.

"Deliveries of single-aisle aircraft dominate those of twin aisle, so any change in IFE penetration on these aircraft will have a dramatic impact on the number of IFE installations."

Onboard architectures

Also emerging are distinct onboard system architectures – server-centric, seat-centric and wireless IFE to a passenger’s device. In a server-centric system, screens play a relatively passive role, to the extent that they’re sometimes used purely to broadcast the signal from the server while a control handset provides the interface between passenger and system. These systems can be wired or wireless.

A more recent development is the seat-centric system – which can also be wired or wireless – where server functionality is migrated to the seat-back screen itself, allowing passengers to choose their own IFE content and processing.

Another advantage is that systems can be integrated at the seat manufacture stage, further lowering weight. For the future, said principal aerospace consultant at Frost & Sullivan Diogenis Papiomytis: "I expect there to be further integration between seat and IFE manufacturers, which will come from the announcement of partnerships and mergers and acquisitions."

Wireless entertainment and the rise of the personal tablet

Perhaps the most recent trend though has been to provide wireless IFE that uses passengers’ own devices such as tablet computers like the iPad to display content.

"With growing popularity of tablet and other mobile devices comes the spread of consumer-oriented software, particularly Android."

Here, said Smith, no screens are installed on the aircraft and content is stored on an onboard server and streamed wirelessly to passengers. This minimises the need for installed onboard hardware, making it easier for airlines (especially low-cost carriers) to offer IFE, and for passengers who don’t have a tablet or similar device, some carriers have started renting them out.

Ultimately though, claimed Smith, no one type of architecture will dominate. "Airlines will need to consider what is most important and suitable to their own circumstances.

"Perhaps the ideal solution will be a hybrid architecture, with some storage and processing at the seat for a minimum level of service in case of a system failure but within a connected ‘live’ network to allow for maximum potential performance and functionality."

There’s general agreement though that tablet-oriented delivery will become very important. Papiomytis said: "I believe the future is with passengers’ own tablet devices, and in integrating them with embedded airline IFE systems, rather than renting them out."

Amy Cravens, analyst at consultancy In-Stat agreed, saying: "Tablet usage in-flight is increasing significantly and will be very influential in how services are developed for this market."

Building bandwidth

A key service here of course, according to Cravens, is video, and its hunger for bandwidth will be a crucial issue. "It will be interesting to see the impact of video services on the capabilities of onboard Wi-Fi systems," she said.

"As usage increases it could strain the capacity of the onboard network such that it may be necessary to implement a fibre-to-the-seat type of solution, such as Lumexis offers."

By contrast, Papiomytis predicted that application-based services will grow in popularity, especially for games and interaction with other passengers.

Software and connectivity

With the growing popularity of tablet and other mobile devices comes the spread of consumer-oriented software, particularly the Android operating system.

"Also emerging are distinct onboard system architectures – server-centric, seat-centric and wireless IFE to a passenger’s device."

Some IFE suppliers are offering it on their latest systems, and Smith sees it taking a hold in the market, but, he said: "It should not be considered the only, or even the simplest, operating system for delivering class-leading IFE. It’s still very new in the business-to-business domain, and it may be difficult for IFE providers to keep up with the rapid roll-out of updates, limiting the potential range of applications that could be introduced onboard."

Yet none of this can or will happen without connectivity, although its importance to some industry-watchers is not what you might expect.

"I do not expect connectivity to have an impact this year," said Papiomytis. "The truth is that passengers do not value connectivity in the air as much as they do on the ground, and this is something all airlines have to realise."

Watching a movie, working offline and relaxing are far more important activities than updating your Facebook page or sending an email, he argued.

"Having said that, connectivity will become far more important to passengers when in the airport, so true innovation there will come from airlines that develop smartphone applications and location based services in partnership with airport stakeholders."

In the right stream

In Papiomytis’s opinion, the only viable use of connectivity will be in managing the growth in content streaming. "Why restrict passengers to ten, 50 or 100 movie choices onboard when they can tailor what they want to listen to or watch through access to an endless library stored on the ground?

"However, the first step is wireless transmission of content from the airport to the aircraft, when the latter is parked at its stand. More and more airlines will look to download content in every aircraft turnaround from LTE (4G) airport terminal networks."

In conclusion, he said: "Over the longer term, we will see the emergence of the ‘always connected’ wireless aircraft – but not in 2012."