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In-flight movies via BYOD? Just what I always wan... argh no we’re all going to die!

Hoping that the Wi-Fi is better than the app

By Alistair Dabbs, 27 May 2016

Something for the Weekend, Sir? It’s sunny outside, which can mean only one thing: I am about to go on holiday to a place where it will be pissing down with rain and sleet for the next fortnight.

My globetrotting exploits have been limited this year, so I’m looking forward to enjoying my first experience of in-flight entertainment via Wi-Fi to my own device – or, as tech airheadspeak has it, my Own Device (or shall we just say, my “OD”).

“Bring Yours” they said – or did they just say “BY”? – and I certainly intend to. After all the calming pills, due to me being a nervous air passenger, I plan to OD in a big way for the entire flight.

The belated awakening of airlines to the popularity of these new-fangled portable telephonic contraptions has prompted research marketeers to predict that in-flight Wi-Fi will become all the rage over the next five years.

On a side note, I’m curious as to why things are always predicted to change “dramatically” over a period of exactly “five years”. Whatever we know today will be unrecognisable “in five years’ time” because it will have changed so much. Dramatically, in fact.

I’m quite sure we used to use a full decade as the accepted period to which this overblown cliché indicating change would refer. Hmm, maybe that was five years ago and now ten years has changed dramatically to five years.

Indeed, to recoin another cliché, five is the new 10. Pretty dramatic, that.

Picture yourself at your first job interview and the HR goon with the wonky tie asks the magic question: “So, Mr Snodgrass, what do you expect to be doing in five years from now?”

You lean forward, contort your features into your most earnestly enigmatic expression – your nostrils flaring, teeth clenched and eyebrows fencing – and reply: “In five years? I will have changed... dramatically...”

Stepping back to the present day, which is surely going to look like a thoroughly undramatic Stone Age in five years from now, I note that airlines would still rather we didn’t make phone calls using our ODs. All we’re being offered is Wi-Fi under Flight Mode.

This ensures pilots and first officers won’t have to contend with distracting nib-nibbet-nib-nibbet buzzing on their headphones while talking to air traffic control. Nor will they be interrupted in their communications by slurring female voices asking if Baz is in coz I wannim ta pick m’yup at airport coz I’m pissed on Sangria nyaaa hahahaha...

The resistance to onboard Wi-Fi until quite recently, however, is difficult to understand for someone like me who doesn’t know how aeroplanes are wired up.

Are they frightened that someone will start playing an old copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator and inadvertently take control of the plane?

Surely the benefits to airlines are there for the taking: let people access your entertainment system over Wi-Fi using their ODs and there’s no longer any need to fit a screen and control console at every seat.

Not only can airlines save on the sheer weight of all that bespoke kit, they no longer have to employ staff to smother the screens with grease, scatter crumbled Pringles into the button recesses or insert chewing gum into the headphone sockets prior to passengers boarding the plane.

All they have to do is ensure the Wi-Fi is secure enough to stop Reg readers from hacking in and reprogramming every video channel to loop reruns of Red Dwarf I-X.

Oh, and of course airlines need to provide us with an app for our ODs with which to enjoy their ghastly selection of MOR music and middle-class TV murder mysteries.

So I’m not overly confident when I see this on my OD when the app wants to geolocate me:

If they can’t be arsed to type over the dummy text, what else haven’t they been arsed to do properly? What thoroughness of care over IT security infrastructure can I expect on this flight?

Perhaps it’ll let me send messages to the screens of all the other passengers. Maybe I’ll find I can AirDrop files to people sitting on other flights. I’m almost tempted to load up an emulator to get Flight Simulator working.

Actually, sod that, I’ll go straight for Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat.

OK OK, I’m deliberately confusing different elements of the tech for a cheap laugh. Also, I’m being unfair to overworked developers who were possibly given 24 hours (why not five years?) to bash out an app that some company director conjured up in his head during a dull board meeting but subsequently forgot to tell anyone about.

Coming from an editorial print background, I began my working life under the threat of “get it right or get a new job”. Once it’s gone to press, it’s too late to make corrections. If you’ve cocked something up, your options were:

  • Hope the readers don’t notice
  • Even if readers notice, hope the lawyers don’t
  • If the lawyers notice, offer to put in a correction next issue or, if it’s a book, a year from now when the paperback comes out
  • If the cockup is already in a paperback, hope that it will be popular enough for you to put the correction in a reprint later this decade
  • If the lawyers are jolly cross with you, offer to pulp the entire issue and live the rest of your days as a hermit on a rocky island in the Outer Hebrides, surviving on dead puffins and seagull piss

We’ve all had a good laugh at print cockups that are too late to fix. No doubt many young Reg readers were inspired in their formative years by this classic headline in Amiga Format:

Amiga Format classic print cockup

In the digital age, however, you just re-open the file, make the correction and republish. Simple as that.

Or at least it ought to be. The very fact that so much stuff in the digital age is bashed out poorly and left uncorrected indefinitely never fails to amaze and appall.

I’ve even had customer service reps apologise for incorrect information on their websites and offer to send me one of their printed leaflets instead. By this, I must deduce that designing, printing and distributing a leaflet to every customer around the country takes less time, effort and expense than rewriting two lines of text on a website.

Smartphone apps are not as simple as websites, of course. The big problem is that updating the former through a third-party app store is fiddly and tiresome: this is a fact to which I can personally attest from frequent experience.

On the other hand, it’s not exactly hot metal.

Incidentally, the production process of checking print pages before they go to press, or are published digitally, is known in the industry as a “preflighting”. There’s synchronicity for you.

My experience with this onboard entertainment app suggests that my airline is no fan of running preflight checks. OD or not, it doesn’t bode well for my flight.

Another four Sangrias over here, please!

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He has not drunk any Sangria for at least 30 years, and never while flying because they don’t sell it on aeroplanes. This situation may change dramatically over the next five years.

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