Tablet Apps: Connectivity is the Buzzword

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What’s ahead for tablet apps? For the short term, look for yet more features, improved operational interfaces and more capability, especially with regard to getting weather. Longer term, however, the big thing will be connectivity with all sorts of devices in the cockpit, including certified panel-mount boxes.

That was one conclusion of a wide-ranging discussion on tablet apps held at AirVenture in a forum jointly sponsored by MyGoFlight and AVweb. Aviation Consumer magazine’s Larry Anglisano moderated the discussion among four major app makers, including ForeFlight, Jeppesen, Bendix/King and WingX Pro.

All four app makers agreed that connectivity is the developing trend and it will be a reality sooner rather than later. With its Connected Panel, Aspen Avionics has already pioneered the basic architecture and more hardware and app interfaces are inevitable.

“There’s no good way to say this, but I think we’re at the end of the beginning for iPad apps,” said ForeFlight’s Tyson Weihs. “I think connectivity will be the trend and we’re going to look back 10 years from now and see that we’ll have connectivity to just about anything the hardware manufacturers desire. I see connectivity with a wide range of certified systems. Whether that happens next year or the year after is a function hardware development and certification schedules,” he said.

Although the crystal ball remains unresolved in detail, connectivity with tablet apps will likely mean full control of panel avionics from tablets, some sort of display and data enhancements and likely interface with everyday gadgets like cellphones.

Bendix/King’s Roger Jollis believes cockpit tablet evolution will contribute to cost decreases for avionics, making sophisticated capability available to more buyers at lower cost. “We have avionics technology today that’s outside the cost envelope for most recreational flyers, but [more affordable] equipment is coming,” Jollis said. At least some of it will rely on inexpensive tablet computer interfaces, he added. Aspen’s Connected Panel is already doing this, but Jollis promises that what’s coming will go “way beyond that.” He said it’s critical that the industry arrive at an open standard for cockpit connectivity as a means of igniting competition and spurring innovation. An open standard would allow any equipment in the panel to communicate with any app that meets the standard, so smaller players wouldn’t be locked out by dominant avionics manufacturers pushing their own proprietary standards.

Hilton Goldstein, whose WingX Pro remains a popular app, said Aspen deserves credit for developing the first panel/tablet interfaces. “What I’d like to see,” said Goldstein, “is bi-directional flow. Whatever your iPad has, your panel should have, too. There should be no difference between the two.”

The app makers were also asked about a persistent problem with both apps and the hardware that runs them: lack of reliability. iPads overheat and die; apps freeze or fail to work. All of the app designers conceded they’re aware of these problems, but Weihs said for the iPad, Apple changes the game every six months with IOS revisions and what may have been a stable app before a revision, is anything but after. One solution—one that’s unavoidable for any app maker wishing to remain competitive—is a robust, ongoing quality program that maximizes uses of crash reports. The post-release quality process that Weihs described sounded not dissimilar from that used by avionics manufacturers for certified equipment, although there’s no regulatory requirement to test apps.