Who's Working Against Your Favorite Apps

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The app revolution has changed more than the cockpit; it's displacing dedicated handheld gps units, giving panel mount avionics a run for their capability (at a deeply discounted price), and challenging the FAA's chart distribution systems. In other words, relative to the still slow economy, it's a booming industry that's changing how a segment of the aviation economy functions. It's not just bringing more capability into more cockpits, it's challenging the way some big entities make money -- and that might soon be changing things for you.

For this article, we spoke with one of the biggest names in the business, Hilton Goldstein, of Hilton Software LLC (maker of the WingX app) to find out what makes a winning app and the very big forces that could soon challenge them all. According to Goldstein, those challenges could cost developers time and money, stifle development and generate new costs for users.

In-cockpit apps supported by personal electronic devices like iPads, iPhones, and Android-based tablets and phones, have evolved over a handful of years from simple weight and balance calculators into powerful comprehensive flight planning and flight management tools. Today, apps can deliver weather, navigation, data libraries (that include fuel pricing), EFIS, terrain, synthetic vision, ADS-B traffic and weather, and more. For many users, the "How did we get along with out this?" factor has become compelling. The popularity of the apps is changing how pilots spend their money and get their information. That means other segments of the market are being affected. And that has consequences. 

From a select handful of the most popular apps, Hilton Software's WingX earns high marks from both customers and critics. The app recently earned top marks from our sister publication Aviation Consumer for its "widest and most sophisticated feature set." And according to company founder Hilton Goldstein, there's a reason his company is ahead of the curve. 

How It Began

Goldstein's products started like most successful products do -- they filled a need. For Goldstein, the need was personal. "I used to fly a lot of Angel Flights," he said. "You're told that you're picking up a kid and a pillow. When you get there it turns out to be a kid and a pillow … mom, dad, and a suitcase." It created practical problems. "I needed something that would do quick weight and balance. So I created a weight and balance app." Making the app available to a broader audience made Goldstein aware of more concerns. "Pilots wanted airport information. Essentially, we grew from there." Early incarnations of Goldstein's app first appeared in 2004. And that, says Goldstein, has made a big difference.

"We started back on Windows Mobile and Blackberry." The hardware was primitive. "It required us to have very fast database access." And this is a key ingredient to the success of Hilton Software LLC. Its programming is based on an architecture that uses and stores data very efficiently. "So now, when you use that on an iPad, it flies," Goldstein explains. The efficiency of aviation data storage and transfer pioneered by Goldstein has spread through the company's products. "We've solved the problem of moving data around quickly and keeping things very small." Now he says he's pushing the same data as his competitors -- often with more functionality -- in a package that is significantly smaller.

Size Matters

"We're running with everything, including terrain, and we're at 3.5 Gb," says Goldstein. Compare that with some other apps and you'll sometimes see roughly 700 Gb for nearly identical content. So long as memory costs money and bandwidth matters, WingX's size could matter to a lot of pilots. Of course, other preferences like differences in user interfaces and subscription costs play as variables in the equation of a pilot's personal economy and decision making. WingX isn't the best solution for everyone. Still, when it comes to data packaging there's a strong argument for smaller is better.

Goldstein argues that inefficient data compression causes some of his competitors to offer their products with "granularity." What he means is that "you could easily end up with a current California sectional and a bunch of expired charts," because the provider needs to break up content to deliver it effectively through the constricted paths of the web. "Because our data is so small, you just go get it all. It's either all current or none of it is. It's very cut and dry and there are very few options to select." And it's made a difference. "We've had companies almost begging us" to give them access to the WingX database. Goldstein knows its value. "It's our secret sauce. We keep it to ourselves," he says. But he hints that with proper motivation, he could be inclined to give some ingredients away. More on that, later.

Currently, Hilton Software's offerings are among the most comprehensive on the market and, unlike some others, are available for a range of hardware. "I like to think that we go the extra mile," Goldstein says, adding he's also "careful not to box myself into a corner." Goldstein doesn't want his software's architecture to be necessarily tied to, or dictated by, a specific hardware platform -- most notably the iPad and its iOS. Part of his ability to control and innovate in the storage and delivery of data relies on his ability to code as he chooses. As a result, "all our technology is multi-platform." Goldstein has covered Windows Mobile, Blackberrry, iPhone and Android platforms. "We've covered everything," he says. And he's capitalized on his early entry into the market. Hilton Software's feature set has in many cases outpaced the competition.

Innovation, Convenience, Safety

On this point, Goldstein is direct. "We're so far ahead with radar altimeters, track up, obstacles … I could go on … . We did split screen two years ago. Track up a year ago. ADS-B weather and traffic years ago." He's correct that come of his closest competitors are still introduction some of those features, but also that capability is only part of the battle. "We have things that keep it useful," he says. Track up is one example. "All the identifiers stay properly oriented … all of them, identifiers and frequencies are on the sectional. You don't have to go zooming in. You just read it." It's an attention to detail that Goldstein is proud of. "When people sit with WingX, we're determined to keep the user interface out of your way and keep it powerful. Nothing fancy. Just get your information quickly." The motive may be utility; the result, says Goldstein, is safety.

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"On Thanksgiving, a guy flew himself and three children into a mountain," Goldstein recalls. "We have a ground proximity warning system, synthetic vision, and passive radar altimeter. I look at an accident like that…" Goldstein trailed off, but began again with conviction. "I have three little girls. I can't imagine that … having them in back and having that happen." For Goldstein the answer is simple, "With our products, the pilot would have known," he says. "We could have prevented that accident." 

The list goes on. "Think of Lexington." Goldstein is referencing the August 27, 2006 crash of Comair Flight 5191, a CRJ-100ER, at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport. Mistakes led the jet to take the shorter runway and attempt departure. Forty-nine died. The co-pilot was the only survivor. "Our smart taxi not only tells them when they're approaching a runway, but how much runway is ahead of them." He speaks with conviction, again, "It would have prevented that accident. They absolutely would have known they were on the wrong runway." To Goldstein these specific examples expand for a broader base. "We have core pieces of technology designed to keep pilots safe. We've received emails -- I'm sure it's true of other apps as well -- of people telling us that WingX saved their lives. I'm proud of that fact."

Challenges, Conflicts And Costs Coming

Nearly all of the popular navigation flight planning apps available today are based on data collected and distributed by the FAA. They do the work. Pilots benefit. The equation worked well for the FAA when it was basically the sole producer of required content like the sectional chart. But the FAA now says apps have changed its funding structure. By taking FAA data and presenting it in a more appealing, more useful package, apps are attracting buyers away from FAA products. And that is moving income streams away from the FAA. The FAA says it's still doing the work, but now it's not getting paid. According to the agency, that's not cause for shifting its resources to make up for the shortfall, but a problem that needs to be directly resolved. According to Goldstein, the FAA believes app users are costing the agency $5 million in lost sales. And its solution is to charge data users to make up the difference. That's where the conflict begins.

"They were quoting $5 million and saying that number will go up in the coming years," says Goldstein of his meetings with the FAA. That cost will trickle down to users, Goldstein says. In practice, "it could be $75 today and $150 tomorrow." It means the app you pay $75 for each year will double in price, he says. Goldstein says he expressed his concern that pricing would change the market in ways that would be detrimental to the available products. "They seem to think that doubling the cost of the product will have no effect." Then he offers an analogy. "Try that with a Camry," he says. "Take your Camry from $25,000 to $50,000 and see if Toyota is still selling as many. The idea is ridiculous." And from there, Goldstein applies more economic theory and sees a snowball effect. "So, fewer people are buying the product, and the price of the product goes up again."

Goldstein says his concerns aren't just about his bottom line, but also about his ability to innovate and produce new products. "We'll need to hire people to track our users and make sure the FAA gets paid for each one, plus whatever paperwork … the FAA thinks that would add jobs to our business, but it will just make us less efficient and less profitable." But Goldstein sees other concerns. "Pilots who own two or three apps, because one is better for them on the ground and the other in the air, they will go down to one." Fewer apps purchased means a higher cost per app and less money for development, Goldstein argues. "That will be bad for everyone. It will impact safety."

So Where Are The Alphabet Groups

Pilot support communities like those embodied by EAA, AOPA and the like are, in Goldstein's words, "not helping." Says Goldstein, "I don't know why." But, within the industry Goldstein can imagine other motives for major voices staying silent. "If prices went up a lot, there are certain competitors who wouldn't mind," he says. "It would make their apps more competitive." Whatever the case, and Goldstein doesn't claim to know the reason, "we need people to be on our side." Goldstein backs his argument with the potential safety benefits apps deliver and the economic benefits of developing a blooming segment of the aviation industry. "It would be nice if we had the help of certain organizations within the aviation industry," but, he says, "we don't."

The FAA is meeting some resistance, according to Goldstein, but nothing well organized. He "wants to get the word out" that the price of your favorite apps may soon be doubling. And if that leads to fewer buyers, the prices will go up again. "Currently, our basic subscription price is $99 per year … we have a three year package for $199. The subscription pays for our process to download gigabytes of information, process it, and deliver it to thousands of users through massive amounts of servers." Says Goldstein, "every 28 days we send out a ton of data that includes free updates. We spend ridiculous hours working on this." If the FAA acts to effectively introduce a new pricing structure affecting his company's raw materials, Goldstein says it will affect the development of apps, their availability, and their cost.

What Changes And When

This is still a big unknown. Observers expected the FAA to take some initial action early in 2013 that would effectively result in the application of chart user fees. But the timetable is fuzzy. Goldstein says he's frustrated by what he observes as the FAA's intransigence. "I think there are different ways to make up the cost difference," he says. Goldstein suggests he could be involved. "I'd love to make their data more innovative. We've done some amazing things with data. … Maybe better distribution or compression."

It's not entirely clear if that could mean Goldstein sharing his "secret sauce" or exactly what would motivate him to do so. Speaking generally, he does say "we could be sharing that technology. Maybe we could make it easier for other companies to provide ground proximity warning systems." Regardless of the details, the key point he seems to be pushing is government/private sector cooperation. "Let's start from a position of assuming we can," he says. But that's not what he's seeing. "Unfortunately, when we sit with the FAA it's clear to me they have no clue how the market works and they haven't budged on their position."

The Bypass Valve

Goldstein does see a way to bypass the problem altogether, but sees it as far less than ideal. "We have a vector map," he says. "We will display terrain fixes, airports, airspace, jetways, drawing state lines… . If we use that kind of data, that would be free. We could conceivably make that product available at a lower cost." But, Goldstein sees the work as a distraction. Instead of creating a replacement product, "we could be designing a much better thing to stop people from killing themselves." He is very simply asking for your help to engage the FAA and motivate them to seek alternate solutions that will not cost you, or him, as much money as he feels the agency's current path threatens.

"Chart user fees… It's going to happen. Let's try to make it as inexpensive as possible," he says. "We need to start by assuming we can. Right now, that's not happening."