This is Part 1 of a 4-Part series, about how Ratio’s commitment to quality took Alaska Airline’s in-flight experience to new heights!
This all started about a year ago when we were asked to build an in-flight entertainment tablet that rivaled the vaunted “DigEplayer”. Can you believe there was a time before The DigEplayer? From a strategy perspective, it was quite the exciting challenge! This handheld device revolutionized in-flight entertainment as we know it. Invented by Bill Boyer, a baggage handler at SeaTac Airport, the DigEPlayer launched over 10 years ago on Alaska Airlines as an alternative to portable DVD players. Success came quickly, and now over 20,000 devices have been used on more than 25 different airlines. So you can imagine our surprise when, in early 2014, Bill Boyer said to us, “I want you to build a product that will take down the DigEplayer.”
Bill sold his company in 2013 because he had a vision for something even bigger. He wanted to add the convenience, speed and functionality of a tablet to the in-flight entertainment experience. But his vision went well beyond his nascent expertise in digital hardware and Hollywood studio negotiations. This would involve more than just movies and TV shows. He wanted music, games, digital magazines and a connection to an on-board server for access to additional content. We, of course, jumped at the opportunity, but from day one this was a project unlike any we had ever seen at Ratio.
The product strategy team at Ratio adapts their level of support to match the needs of each project. In this case, our role can be defined by looking at 3 key areas –
Using client and Ratio relationships to bring in the right partners at the right times to maximize long-term success for the project and the client.
Understanding each partner’s strengths to know when to lead, when to support – and when to circle the wagons and raise a red flag!
First and foremost, our role is to act as product-owner proxy: to deeply understand our client’s business objectives and goals, act in their best interests on a day-to-day basis and constantly be looking forward to anticipate issues and identify opportunities on their behalf.
Building an IFE tablet experience of this magnitude required catalyzing an unusual number of connections. There were numerous clients and partners to consider. Skycast, Bill Boyer’s new company, was our official ‘client’ for the project. Alaska Airlines was their client and, therefore, of utmost importance to us, as well. We brought in Microsoft who provided significant resources and support for not only the Windows 8.1 development work, but their Games group contributed games content and their Azure team also helped with the Analytics development work. So, based on their unique level of support, we definitely considered Microsoft a ‘client’ at some level, too.
Having three different clients to juggle at once was a bit challenging, but as it turned out, they were the easy part. More challenging was finding and integrating the numerous vendors required including:
- Toshiba – our hardware partner supplying the 8” tablets
- Next Issue Media – our digital magazine app partner
- Gogo – our on-board server and wi-fi partner
- A DRM (digital rights management) vendor
- Content partners including multiple Hollywood studios and music publishers
In all, nearly a dozen companies were involved in creating this next-generation IFE tablet experience. Catalyzing each of these connections to ensure seamless integration was a task well beyond just our strategy team, it required tireless efforts from our development and QA teams and relentless project management.
After 9 months of hard work, we released the final product to the public in early February of this year. And this project had no soft launch. All 7,000 tablets took to the skies in a single weekend. While we were confident with our final product, we were still anxious to hear the initial reviews.
During the first week in the field, 2 tablets were returned as inoperable. One was resolved by simply reinserting the memory. The other one had been sat on. The amazing thing was that neither issue was software related. It’s now been a full month since these 7,000 tablets began being used by passengers, and not one tablet has been returned due to software issues. Most importantly, the feedback from customers and flight attendants has been unanimously positive.
It is still early yet, but the initial results are great and it appears that Bill the Baggage Handler may just be on the way to revolutionizing in-flight entertainment as we know it…. again.