Things to do while strapped in your seat on an airplane? Hmm … Maybe a dozen?
The latter could change drastically if a new partnership by Lake Forest’s Panasonic Avionics Corp. and New York’s CoKinetic Systems Corp. takes off. The two companies are building an marketplace where airline passengers can order flowers, make dinner reservations or even find a date while on board for that night .
Kris Stevens, CoKinetic’s CEO, envisions this “apps store” to be like Apple’s popular iPhone apps store, which had 60 million downloads in the first month!
“Individual developers will be able to put their imaginations to work and that’s the part I find very exciting. You never know on the Internet. There’s a bunch of crazy people creating a bunch of cool stuff. We’re going to take this somewhere the airline industry has never been able to go before,” said Stevens, who has a growing team of 11 employees next door to Panasonic’s Orange County headquarters.
Currently, getting new software onto an airplane’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) console is a long and costly process. Developers must write in C++ programming language for the Linux operating system, and then go through a rigorous certification process with the Federal Aviation Administration to avoid another crash like the SwissAir Flight 111. Just testing software for the FAA can cost $20,000 or more. And it could be a year or longer before the software makes it to the IFE console.
But much easier is getting media, such as a movie or music, onto the plane because it’s just a content update. CoKinetic took this “content” idea and developed an XML-based platform called Airplay. It’s already FAA approved and is used by airlines such as Virgin America, which allows passengers to use IFE to order food (see a video demo of Virgin’s Red in-flight entertainment console on YouTube). New software apps are considered content and can be quickly added without government scrutiny.
“This concept (of a marketplace) doesn’t exist right now,” said Stevens, who’s been working on the project with Panasonic for three years.
The potential apps Stevens and Panasonic mentioned sound more like advertising: ordering flowers, shopping the SkyMall catalog, customizing a car, listening to political speeches.
But, Stevens points out, it’s up to the developers to dream up cool programs. There could be foreign-language training, shooter games and the aforementioned dating service, where passengers flying to the same city can match themselves up. Above is an interactive map from Google, which is already in use today by some of CoKinetic’s customers.
While this sounds very much like the Internet, it won’t be. This is more like a proprietary portal that only gets updated when the plane lands. While Internet access is becoming more prevalent in the air, Stevens feels there is room for both.
But people really want Internet, at least according to a report by Harry H. Harteveldt, an analyst with market researcher Forrester Research Inc.
“People may accept the fact that they can’t smoke on a plane, but the addiction that consumers have with the Internet clearly won’t be left on terra firma any more,” Harteveldt said.
CoKinetic and Panasonic will release a developer’s kit before the end of the year. Stevens believes apps will show up by second quarter 2009. The individual airlines would choose which apps to include in their planes. Passengers would be able to buy them at their seat, for a few dollars apiece. New apps are installed when the plane is on the ground.
Stevens is adamant about keeping developer costs at a minimum — zero if possible. Neil James, Panasonic’s executive director of corporate sales and marketing, said two options under consideration would either let the developer do everything himself or one where Panasonic and CoKinetic fund development if the idea is that good. Not determined yet is who gets how much of the money. They could split licensing fees or have a revenue sharing program.
Panasonic is extremely interested in getting a marketplace launched because it gives its customers — the airlines – a new way to make money, James said.
“Really, the days of in-flight entertainment showing movies and audio onboard, that’s really passe,” James said. “Airlines are looking to monetize the experience.”