iPods on a plane

Update, 16 Nov: as David points out, some of the airlines named in the Think Secret story are denying everything… 

I mentioned this story – Apple signs a deal to put iPods in planes – in the Zune comments thread, but I reckon it deserves a post in its own right. It’s a vivid illustration of why Apple’s such a fascinating firm to watch, because the story made my jaw drop.

According to Think Secret, Apple is working with six major airlines to put iPod connectivity in their planes. It sounds like they’ll be using iPod docks, and the result is that you’ll not only be able to keep your iPod powered on long flights, but you’ll also be able to display clips from your iPod Video on the seat-back screen. As Squander Two put it: “In one fell swoop, the Video iPod is transformed from pointless gimmick into rather useful thing.”

He’s not wrong. It also turns iTunes movie downloads into something considerably more attractive. If you’ve ever been stuck with the in-flight entertainment on a long haul flight you’ll know just how bad it can be, and the iPod alternative – choose what you want to watch before you fly, stick it on your iPod and watch it on a decent sized screen – is a great idea. Mobile video is a fairly niche product, because unlike music you need to be able to give it your full attention. And when you’re stuck on a plane, you’ve plenty of attention to give.

Let’s imagine the war of the MP3 players as a game of chess. Apple’s made some moves, Microsoft’s made some moves, then Apple’s made a minor move – redesigned Nanos, etc – before Microsoft plays the Zune. Apple doesn’t react, and while Microsoft keeps a poker face, inside it’s going “woo-hoo! The game is mine!” – but then Apple makes its airplane move. It’s not so much a case of taking one of Microsoft’s pieces off the board; rather, it’s akin to attacking the entire board with a rocket launcher and then dancing on Microsoft’s head in football boots.

Hmmm. Maybe the chess analogy isn’t the best one.

Anyway. If, as seems to be the case, the airline deal means iPod docks rather than a couple of bog standard connectors, Apple’s completely outflanked Microsoft (and Creative, and Sony, and…) on this one. Sure, you can take a Zune on a plane, or a network walkman (or whatever Sony’s calling their MP3 players these days). But only the iPod is actually integrated. It’s the same with cars: sure, some systems have an aux plug that lets you plug anything in. But the nice stuff, the control-your-player-from-the-steering-wheel stuff, that’s iPod-only. How long before Apple announces a similar deal to integrate iPods with in-car video systems? With Zune, Microsoft’s going after the player in your pocket. But Apple’s already thinking of bigger things.

Incidentally, how long do you think it’ll be between the launch of in-flight iPods and the first newspaper story featuring appalled passengers who’ve been subjected to some idiot’s porn collection? I reckon a few weeks, tops.