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Winter 2012

Author: Christophe Mostert
This article appears in Issue 4: the Winter 2011 edition of the Aircraft IT Operations eJournal. For your own free subscription to the eJournal - click on 'SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE' for full details.


Future EFB platforms and hardware

It may seem like an iPad market today but, as Christophe Mostert, Managing Partner at M2P Consulting explains, other solutions are available and developing fast

Within the last decade, the whole aviation industry has begun to focus to an increasing extent on its ecological footprint. Airbus’ and Boeing’s recent announcements to introduce their new, more economical Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX series are clearly in line with that trend. The European Union also still wants to include the aviation sector into its carbon emission-trading scheme. In addition to all of this, the price for jet fuel has risen dramatically over the last 10 years and, as a result, airlines are working to reduce their kerosene consumption. This can most easily be achieved through more economic engines and less overall weight.

One area where weight can be reduced is in the cockpit with regard to the documentation that a pilot needs. Whereas, originally, several large folders of paper manuals, route charts and other documents were necessary and so had to be carried on board, pilots today can have all of the necessary information available within one device. The ‘Electronic Flight Bag’ (EFB) has become increasingly common in the last couple of years as it is not only lighter than traditional paper based flight bags but it also allows for easier distribution of updates to maps and documentation.

With the success of the Apple iPad, the number of major airlines around the world that are starting to use tablet based EFBs is growing rapidly. At the same time, an increasing number of hardware manufacturers are now entering the market while software vendors are adapting their programs to the new possibilities. But, while the concept of tablets in one form or another is not entirely new, until the introduction of the Apple iPad in 2010, those were mostly derived from standard PC technology and therefore relatively large and heavy.

Nowadays, the iPad is undoubtedly the most popular tablet on the market, but is it also the best EFB platform available? Do airlines selecting iPad based EFB solutions receive the same value for money and as good a technical solution as they do with other offerings on the market? Is the whole iPad discussion just current hype or will it have a profound and lasting impact on the airline industry?

With this article we try to shed some light onto these questions. The first part provides a good overview of what the actual differences between a regular laptop and the new tablet solutions are. After that we will compare Apple’s iOS platform against Google Android and Microsoft Windows.

Hardware

Apart from the form factor, the main difference between laptops and tablets are the CPUs. The Intel and AMD CPUs used in PCs and laptops implement the so called ‘x86’ architecture whereas Apple and Android tablets are built around CPUs which implement the ‘ARM’ architecture. Where the former offers a lot more performance, the latter is far more power efficient and therefore optimized for mobile devices. However, the two architectures are not compatible, i.e. software written for one of the architectures cannot be run on the other without adaptations.

Until the recent introduction of tablets into the cockpit, EFBs were typically based on standard laptop computers. And due to the evolution of laptops over the last two and a half decades, in some key aspects they have an edge over tablets:

  • They offer higher performance than tablets: the processing power of the best available CPUs in laptops is of an order of magnitude greater as is the size of the internal storage or the amount of main memory. This also helps to boost their price/performance ratio as does the tough competition in this market.
  • There is a large variety of devices to choose from: from small, light and cheap netbooks, through models able to run on battery for even the longest long-haul flights to extremely robust devices that can resist water and dust; hardware manufacturers supply laptops to suit almost every possible application.
  • Laptops are built to be flexible and extensible using standard components and interfaces. Possible extensions include scanners and printers, TV and radio receivers, external hard drives, keyboards, mice and monitors; to name but a few.

Against this, tablets are an exciting new option as an EFB platform and they also offer some specific advantages over laptops:

  • They are light and compact. Typical tablets weigh between 600 to 800 grams, whereas there are only very few laptop models that weigh less than 1500 grams without making too many compromises; e.g. in… build quality, performance or price. Also, tablets are roughly the size of a printed magazine.
  • They can be used more intuitively. The use of touch gestures allows the literal implementation of Bill Gates’ vision, from 1995, of “information at your fingertips”; introduced by Apple with the iPhone and perfected with the introduction of the iPad.
  • In everyday use, tablets have a longer battery life than most laptops.

So, what impact do these different features have on their use as EFB?

With currently available tablet based EFB solutions, performance is not a problem, because the tablets are used mainly as a replacement for paper based maps and documentation. Displaying, say, a moving map or NOTAMs, or searching for airport specific information does not require a great deal of processing power.

Although laptop based solutions are also used to calculate take-off performance data and, for this function, need more processing power, these calculations are done before take-off. Therefore the performance gap between tablets and laptops may not have as much impact in daily use as might be expected.

On the one hand, faster tablets are rapidly being developed and the first quad-core devices have been available since before the end of 2011, narrowing the aforementioned performance gap. On the other hand, this rapid development of new devices may also pose problems, especially in an aviation environment.

First of all, new devices have to undergo certification by the responsible authorities (e.g. the FAA) to be used as EFBs; this costs time and money. Secondly, the positions of buttons and interfaces as well as the dimensions are not standardized and consequently, docking stations and other accessories are not interchangeable between different devices, mostly not even from the same manufacturer. Last but not least, older models are probably not compatible with newer software updates (see below).

To address these problems, many laptop manufacturers offer models that are either available for an extended timespan and/or that offer compatibility with the same accessories over several hardware generations. The tablet market, however, is currently focused on consumers rather than on business users and therefore such stable platforms are not yet available for tablets.

For use in the cockpit, extensibility is currently not so much of an issue since Class 1 EFBs are used independently from the aircraft and, at most, need a power source and probably a mount. However, the development of tablet-based Class 2 EFBs is likely to suffer from the lack of extensibility options and standards.

Software platforms

The operating system is another important consideration in an EFB device. Most importantly, the more appealing a platform is to developers and software vendors, the more competitive the market becomes and, as a result, the more the choices and the better the prices will be. Secondly, the timespan for which an operating system is supported by its manufacturer and the extent to which software compatibility is maintained between different versions determines the longevity of an airline’s investments in EFB related hard- and software.

Last but not least, in the case of tablets the choices of operating system and hardware are interdependent: the iPad runs on Apple’s iOS whereas the rest of the market uses Google Android. In this respect, laptops are more flexible: while Microsoft Windows remains the most popular operating system, a large number of Linux distributions are available as well. On Apple’s computers, MacOS X is another option.

As an operating system for personal computers, Microsoft Windows has dominated the market for two decades. Due to its large market share and widespread use by businesses, Microsoft traditionally attaches great importance to protecting its customers’ investments. One aspect of this is to maintain downwards compatibility in Windows, i.e. software written for an older version of Windows also runs on later generations of the operating system. Microsoft also offers support options to provide security updates and hotfixes for a given Windows version for at least ten years after market launch. These advantages have helped to make Windows a very attractive platform for developers of EFB solutions.

While Windows based EFB solutions were first introduced more than ten years ago, Apple’s iOS is still a new player in this market and one which differs in several aspects. Apple’s business model is based on a tight integration of hardware and software. Applications (‘apps’) for the iPad can only be bought in and installed from Apple’s own AppStore (where they earn Apple a 30% commission on the revenue generated).

This integration allows Apple to offer a homogeneous platform to developers who, in turn, have to optimize their software for only a limited number of devices. Combined with easy access to millions of potential customers through the AppStore, iOS has quickly become the platform of choice for a lot of app developers. Therefore, in the past, many apps available on iOS have been published for Android either later or not at all. Also, due to the limited number of different devices running iOS, Apple offers updates even for relatively old devices. For example, the iPhone 3GS introduced in June 2009 received the recent update to iOS5 whereas the Google Nexus (presented in January 2010) will not be updated to the new Android 4.0. Furthermore, the amount of accessories and additional hardware available for Apple’s devices is not matched by those of any competitor in the tablet market. However, these advantages come at a cost both for developers and professional users.

First and foremost, Apple effectively has a hardware and software monopoly for the iOS platform. For instance, Apple reviews apps before offering them in the AppStore and even reserves the right to remotely uninstall them under certain conditions. Another example is Apple’s refusal to support Adobe Flash or alternative browsers on its devices.

Also, Apple’s strategy clearly focuses on consumers rather than business users and adapts its products and services for the latter only if necessary. For example, to make the concept of the AppStore more viable for enterprise customers, Apple recently introduced a ‘Volume Purchase Program’ for centralized software purchase and provisioning. However, it is currently only available to enterprises in the United States.

With the Linux based Android, Google takes a different approach. In contrast to Windows and iOS, Android is open source and can be used by manufacturers free of charge. Only if they want to use the ‘Market’ (the Android equivalent to the AppStore) and Google software, such as Google Maps, do manufacturers need to have their devices certified by Google. But even on certified devices it is possible to install software from other sources than the Google Market. This strategy, however, is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it leaves room for hard- and software adaptations to special requirements, leading to more diverse hardware offerings. Panasonic for instance has just announced the Toughpad A1, a robust Android tablet whose protection against water, dust and impact is certified to the MIL-STD-810G and IP65 standards.

On the other hand, the open structure of Android may lead to a fragmentation of the market. The long-term results of this remain to be seen in the future.

In the smartphone market Android has reached a market share of 52.5 % in Q3/2011 according to market researchers Gartner. In the next few years, the tablet market will probably develop in a similar way. Accordingly, Android is becoming increasingly important as a platform for professional app developers and the above quoted shortcomings in the availability of apps on Android are already being reduced.

Summary and outlook

Air Berlin just recently announced that they are going to upgrade their whole fleet with Windows based EFBs from NavAero. While NavAero also offer tablet based solutions, they still consider these to be only Class 2 EFB ‘Lite’ Systems. However, in contrast to the solution used by AirBerlin, tablet based EFBs are not fixed in the aircraft and can be used in other situations, e.g. for briefings or (with a built-in camera) to document technical issues inside or outside the aircraft.

All three platforms ‒ Apple iPad/iOS, Android tablets and Windows laptops ‒ have specific advantages. Apple offers a popular and homogeneous, yet tightly locked, eco-system. Android is very open and offers more diverse hardware than Apple while Windows still is the most versatile and proven platform of the three. It also offers extensive support for enterprise environments but is not optimized for tablets. From the EFB perspective, the iPad still has to demonstrate that its consumer oriented hardware can withstand the rough flight ops environment. In this regard, Android tablets are already in the lead but still lack EFB software support.

All things considered, we believe that the EFB of the future will be a tablet that combines three main properties: the diversity of Android hardware, the efficiency of the ARM platform and the enterprise features and long-term stability of Windows.

What today may sound like wishing for the impossible is likely to become planning for the feasible with the launch of Windows 8, which is expected for the fall of 2012. Windows 8 will offer a user interface that is optimized for tablets and ‒ for the first time ‒ will not only run on x86- but also on ARM-based CPUs. The first prototype tablets running Windows 8 have already been shipped to developers and major manufacturers such as Asus and Nokia have announced their support.

The next step in the evolution of EFBs probably has just appeared on the horizon.

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