Apple Takes a Bite Out of Aviation

Building upon its success in the consumer market with the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and now the iPad series of tablet computers, Apple has been encroaching into many business-driven markets as of late, such as aviation. Rather than provide you with yet another review of the hundreds of Apple device-focused apps, this discussion is focused on not only why Apple has been succeeding (without even trying) in getting onto aircraft, but what this means for aviation.

Before we delve into that, a short timeline is needed on how Apple was able to crack the hold of PCs and Windows in this niche.

Why Is Apple So Popular These Last Few Years?

The answer is simple: design, usability and the ‘wow’ factor. Apple computers were typically aimed at the creative professions, and this type of positioning had elevated the company to a cult-like status among its niche following. With the advent of the iPod, Apple entered the mainstream consumer electronics market in a big way. Other manufacturers had sold compact MP3 music players before Apple, but none of these seemed to capture the imagination of the market so well. (Much of this is due to good marketing, as much as good engineering). The iPhone was not only a continuation of the iPod design and user interface (a sleek touchpad with design features that make it very user friendly), but also was the introduction of a minimalistic operating system (the ‘iOS’) which quickly surpassed the established phone/software providers and has firmly vanquished most of its competitors. Another new entrant, Google, bought the Android product, and built it into an extension of its online platform, and is now challenging Apple in the phone applications and software market and follows the web-friendly design by Apple. This competition will stoke innovation for years to come in phones and tablet computers.

iPad Tablets: Taking on Windows and PCs As Never Before

Apple had not been able to break the Microsoft Windows stronghold upon the computer market, so the company needed to do something bold to break out of its niche computer markets. The iPhone was the first shot across the bow of Microsoft and the PC juggernaut, as well as other established cellular phone software providers, and essentially vanquished the Microsoft Windows phone-based operating systems to a lower-tier status. The release of the initial iPad tablet was greeted with great fanfare, as new Apple fans who had never used a Mac began buying these consumer-friendly tablet computers wholeheartedly. Within a year, it had nearly sunk the market for another recent success, the netbook (a small, underpowered PC typically used for only email and basic uses, usually powered by MS Windows XP). So, Apple finally had a computer-market success outside of its key loyal fan base of graphic artists, writers and publishers.

Essentially, the iPhone/iPad duo has been the poster children for the booming mobile Internet market. As consumers moved into using web-enabled smart phones and tablets, their expectations for how to interact with the Internet have changed how people expect to do so, and how to have information almost instantaneous pushed to them. This type of ‘always connected, always informed’ expectation has changed how people use not only their phones, but also their computers.


Consumer-Driven Developments

This consumer-powered movement is a continuation of how the computing/communications industries have evolved in the last 10 years. Prior to this, many major computing (PCs, PDAs) and communications advances (pagers, cell phones and Blackberries) mainly emerged from the business market, which could afford to pay for higher-priced devices and services, until the prices crept down to be affordable to home users. This allowed the functionality of these devices to be somewhat defined by corporate IT and business departments, who dictated how their staff would make use of these.

However, once home computers and Internet usage became ubiquitous, and cell phone usage began to overtake landline usage for many people, the electronics and software service providers began targeting consumers with such products as the iPhone. The iPhone very quickly unseated the Blackberry as the favored communications device due to many reasons, but primarily due to the number of applications and the easy-to-use interface. Without the applications and the ‘always connected’ capability of the iPhone, people may have abandoned this platform after the novelty wore off. The iPad is merely a continuation of this trend.

Apple and Aviation: An Injection of Consumer Electronics Into A Stodgy Industry

You were probably wondering how long it would take for me to write about Apple entering the aviation market, weren’t you? Well, now that you understand the (much abbreviated) timeline of developments of how Apple was able to develop a platform which appealed to Windows users, we can discuss how the iPad and iPhone are sneaking onto today’s aircraft, and why this development is impacting the aviation market in new ways.

The key reason that flight crews are using Apple for electronic flight bag (EFB) and related functionality is the key issue that Windows-based PCs have not solved: ease of use. While there have been many Windows-powered tablet computers in the market for many years now, each is burdened with a full-featured Windows operating system and slow boot-up time (for the most part), and each requires a tech-savvy user or support department to support on a regular basis. On the other hand, my 11-year-old niece is able to teach her parents how to use her iPad very effectively, and it has never crashed on her (outside of a potentially nasty apple juice carton incident, but that is another story for another day).

First Target Was the Paperless Cockpit, and Now Flight Displays

Some of the initial use of iPads (and iPhones and iPods, even) in a cockpit was to replace paper charts, or, as a backup GPS navigation device. A number of the EFB providers took notice and began porting their products onto these devices (especially once the iPad 2s came out, which have greater capabilities and are a bit lighter), creating a cottage industry in aircraft mounts, kneeboards, GPS receivers, legstraps, chargers and many other add-ons. Some of the EFB vendors even provide their products delivered onto an integrated iPad, since they were able to provide enterprise-tools for corporate customers with the release of the iPad 2 and its updated operating system (to support intra-company use of applications and provide configuration profiles for any corporate services).

Once again, the main reasons why these Apple products were able to so quickly invade aircraft was ease of use, portability (tablet is encased in a small, sexy package) and simplicity, as illustrated in the table above.

While the current iPad 2 may not be as good as dedicated devices (EFBs, eBook/document readers, GPS navigation) at certain tasks, it is typically more than adequate at most of these tasks, and that is the dilemma facing EFB and GPS vendors today. When your customers become accustomed to buying generic devices which can solve most everyday problems in their personal and professional lives for a fraction of the price of buying dedicated, single-purpose expensive devices ... at some point the scales tip in favor of the general purpose device. This type of trend has happened in software, digital cameras and video cameras, network services and many other areas.

While I am not advocating the abandonment of Class 1/2 EFBs and dedicated GPS products in favor of iPads equipped with PDF-reading software and Bluetooth-enabled GPS receivers mounted in cockpit yoke mounts, some part of the aviation market is already exploring this (with general aviation in the forefront, and business and commercial aviation less so). In fact, the performance of the iPad in various flight tests leaves it behind the performance curve for time-critical (routing, navigation, etc.) functions, but various vendors are working on resolving some of these issues. Expect some innovative solutions to emerge here in the years to come.

The interesting question that begs to be answered is why are end users (for the most part) so quick to jump aboard the iPad bandwagon, and abandon so many tried-and-true PC or dedicated devices? The sizzle factor of the iPad is undoubtedly part of this, but something deeper is at work. There seems to be a general dissatisfaction with the user interfaces of many of these aviation market devices which is either inherited from Windows-based PCs in general, or, from single-function devices designed by engineers (with no or minimal assistance from designers or specialists devoted to how devices should be  designed with an end user in mind). This is not to demean the many human interface specialists working at some of the suppliers, but, let’s face it — many products on an aircraft could do with a little dash of innovation from the user’s point of view, couldn’t they?

iPads in the Cockpit, iPads in the Cabin, iPads on the Ground, iPads Everywhere

Essentially, iPad-based products and applications are emerging for various operations in and around aircraft. It is amazing how such a simplistic and minimalistic device can be adapted for use in an aircraft cockpit, entertaining passengers, controlling cabin functions and in airport and ground operations — and it basically costs $500. If it gets lost/stolen/misplaced (I, umm, must have left it in my rental car …) it has a free tracking feature. (I am still not sure why so few electronics vendors offer such a service).

What the iPads bring to aviation specifically is a sense that a successful consumer electronics device can be integrated into the traditionally closed world of aircraft. Keep in mind that we are only at the beginning of the iPad’s lifecycle, and expect that future versions of this product will evolve to meet more stringent needs of various markets. Apple is adding greater security, enterprise-level support for company use, and support for iPads being better integrated with secured internal applications. Such additions will appeal to not only end customers but also third-party developers (software applications, cloud-based services and hardware add-ons) which will provide end customers with more reasons to consider the iPad for more business purposes. With Apple providing an increasing level of business-focused functionality in their latest version of the iOS, the iPad begins to evolve from a consumer-focused ‘toy’ to a loftier status, which will bring it into further use on aircraft. With the FAA providing further approval for the iPads use as an EFB, more of the hesitation to make use of these tablets is evaporating.

Driving Consumer Apps into the Aviation Market

Moving away from the cockpit … iPads (and other tablet computers and smartphones) may be able to help the travel experience as well. With the expansion in the use of wireless communications on board an increasing amount of aircraft, this supports the core functionality of the ‘always on, always connected’ revolution further. With this trend, it may be possible for airlines and operators to identify new revenue streams, such as finding new ways to have passengers use their personal devices in flight to better their flying experience. In fact, this may be an area where airlines (and other operators) may be able to upgrade their image of stodgy customer service. Here are some potential ideas:

1. Cabin-based customer service: Passengers could order drinks or meals either at the gate, or anytime on board and perhaps even pay for this via their device, rather than handing credit cards to cabin crew. This would be much more convenient, reduce the potential for theft and lighten the workload on the cabin crew.

2. In-flight entertainment: How about taking advantage of the booming online games experience? For passengers stuck on long flights, why not provide ‘sponsored’ games in which you compete with other passengers, or, your flight competes with other flights? How fun. Wow, people may actually look forward to flying to boost their games scores! High score for the flight gets some extra frequent flyer miles! Note to self: patent the idea.

3. Passengers could communicate flight status with those awaiting them at their destination (or for those with untrusting spouses, provide assurance that they are not on their way to Las Vegas but to Wichita, Kan., for that last-minute ‘business conference’): While we have some of this already, wouldn’t it be more fun if airlines/operators provided some type of pre-set notification to a passenger’s contact on key flyover points with updated flight arrival data? (Here is a picture of the view while flying over the Grand Canyon, and it was taken by an aircraft’s underside camera.) Wouldn’t this add a bit more fun to everyone involved in the travel experience (which we truly need in our post-9/11 era of TSA pat downs)?

4. Passenger reviews of flights/crew/food/etc.:  Basically bring Yelp to an airline in a deeper way. We already have this to a degree, but not by flight number. By having more passenger feedback publicly, this can only improve the level of service that passengers will receive. Many of us are so frustrated with airlines today that we no longer bother contacting them with complaints. Yelp and other feedback Web sites have done wonders for improving service and food quality at restaurants and other establishments, so perhaps if passengers commented on flight numbers or aircraft used, this would help improve the travel experience. (For example, FlyingNomad’s review of AA flight number 815 from LAX to JFK: “Avoid the $8 turkey sandwich, it tastes like old ham … and the seats are worn out on this aircraft which is as old as I am probably, so bring your own seat cushion, or be prepared to throw out your pants after the flight. The in-flight movies have terrible sound on their $2 headsets, so don’t forget your iPad!”) The passengers need to find a way to force the airlines to give better service to a typically bad experience, and this could help.

5. Additional revenue streams for airlines/operators: Airlines have been bundling travel options for years when you book your travel online, but what about pushing discounted taxi/limo/etc. to passengers in flight? Messages to connected phones and computers could be sent prior to landing, and perhaps could allow passengers to reserve some of this (once again, perhaps even billing the passenger directly via their mobile device account). Perhaps even offer passengers an opportunity to split a cab fare for those heading to close-by destinations by asking those interested for their final destination! Talk about changing the perception of how a travel experience could be upgraded for everyone involved. This could be available for any Internet-enabled device, not just iPads, but the more information and visual cues (such as maps) that you can provide a passenger, the more likely they are to use such a service.

What Does the Attack of the iPads mean for the Longer-term Outlook in Aviation?

iPads and other general-purpose devices with superior user interfaces and ease of use can be expected to continue an expansion onto aircraft and ground-related functions. The market has seemingly found an alternative to full-featured Windows-based devices, or ‘heavily-locked’ down devices with a single set of functions, each of which require greater amounts of user training, as well as technical support. Most people will agree that iPads are not appropriate for every use in a cockpit or cabin, but are all hoping that product vendors will find a way for those applications which are not there yet. Keep in mind that iPads have only been designed as general purpose devices and have only been on the market for less than two years, so it may take some time for Apple and its partners to develop aviation market-specific models more suited to our niche market and safety-critical requirements. It took many years for Windows-based PCs to attain their current status on aircraft.

It has become clear that if you are a vendor of cockpit support systems (EFBs, GPS/Navigation, electronic manuals, etc.), you NEED to have either an iPad-hosted product or software apps available. In fact, if you do not have this, your airline/operator customers may push you there or find a vendor who already is.

It can be expected that Microsoft and the computing-focused vendors will not stand by idly and watch their market share evaporate. With Google also chasing this market space, the world is now entering a new computing war. On one side, Apple has a large lead in the tablet computer space, with Google gaining ground (but mostly at the expense of Windows-based tablets), along with a smattering of other competitors such as Blackberry, Motorola and most recently, HP. This group of competitors will undoubtedly attack the consumer market initially, and then each will find ways to attack niche markets. Aviation is not overly large from a consumer computing device perspective, but due to the business-focus potential of premium-priced applications and peripherals, this should be an attractive market for them. Future iPad versions should address some of the issues that the early adopters identify, simplifying the business case for others to move their products onto these tablets.

The iPad is exactly what aviation needed to kick start more innovation and get a fresh dose of cutting-edge consumer electronics onto an airplane. Let’s make flying fun again, for both passengers and crew. Consumer electronics might just be one of the ways for this to happen!


John Pawlicki is CEO and Principal of OPM Research. He also works with Virtual Security International (VSI), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). Pawlicki has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA and other related groups, notably involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms. He recently completed his writing of the ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’, which analyzed third-party sites which support the trading of aircraft parts. For more information, visit

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