Cockpit Tech Convergence? Sort Of
Remember five years ago when convergence was the buzz word among techno futurists? The idea was that technological development was drifting toward products that would be all-in-one appliances. You'd surf the Web on your TV and watch movies on your phone. You can actually do those things, but I note with some irony that on a business trip, I still carry a laptop, an iPad and an iPhone because the iPad can't edit video, the computer can't make a phone call on the fly and the iPhone is a lousy e-reader. So convergence turned out to be just another empty idea that really described how companies would sell us ever more expensive gadgets ruthlessly designed to not be the all-in-one appliance.
Still, little pockets of meaningful convergence persist and I saw a couple of examples at the AEA show in Washington last week. One has to do with corporate convergence, the other gadget convergence. The corporate version is avionics companies doing developmental deals with rivals or at least finding projects of common interest. Aspen is working with Avidyne and Bendix/King, for instance, and many of the iPad app developers work with hardware manufacturers or retailers to develop products. Sporty's and Foreflight, for instance, collaborated on a new ADS-B box and Guardian will make its clever combination CO detector/Bluetooth product compatible with all of the major tablet navigation apps. There are more such deals in the works, including a big one you'll hear about later this year.
Speaking of tablets and especially the iPad, development in this segment is so robust with so many players that I wonder what kind of legs it has for some of the players. More and more applications are being developed to help us plan, quantify, record, examine and analyze that which all of us seem to be doing ever less of: actually flying airplanes. It's almost as if the airplane has become a 3-D conveyance for moving an iPad from point A to point B. The actual act of slipping the surly bonds is merely incidental. One wonders if it will become unnecessary.
In the opening session of AEA, the association's lifetime achievement award winner, Paul Ryan, wryly noted that we've come so far with avionics that we've lost the thrill of actually becoming lost once in a while. To that, I'd add the tendency to prefer virtual reality over real reality. Do we still look out the window when crossing the Mississippi?
The impact of these developments looks to be far reaching in that narrow but important segment of the market related to product development. Little noted at Sun 'n Fun was Garmin's release of a new product called Garmin Pilot. This app started as a simple cellphone flightplanner/weather getter called MyCast and has now morphed into full-up navigation program to rival ForeFlight and WingX. Besides being a new product in an intensely competitive market, it's also a tacit acknowledgement by Garmin that tablets are chewing into the dedicated GPS portable market. Does that mean we won't see any more new portables? Not really, says Garmin's Jim Alpiser in this podcast from AEA.
Is he right? For the short term future, yes, because even the best tablet apps are compromised by either physical limitations of the tablet itself or by application limitations. While this will—and is—improving with each new iteration, a certain percentage of buyers will, in a vote for anti-convergence, go with a dedicated device. On trips, I still carry a Garmin nuvi because the tablet or phone apps I've tried haven't worked quite as well or been as easy to use. I was recently riding with someone using a Droid app to navigate. It got us there, but the routing was absurdly circuitous. Having said that, the apps are improving rapidly enough that I'm sure I'll land on one that works. But not yet.
On the avionics front, it's obvious what the next round of products might be. Guardian's Bluetooth device points the way. It broadcasts GPS position data from a panel-mount GPS via Bluetooth. Received wirelessly by a tablet, this powers the moving map for navigation. So I'd expect to see some inexpensive comm radios with this capability, probably with ADS-B weather as an add-on. If these can be done less expensively than full-blown in-panel mapcomms, that might not be convergence, but it could be progress on holding the cost of flying somewhat in check.