Open Source and Competitive Advantage

Via Boing Boing, here’s an interesting inside look at the technology inside Sir Richard Branson‘s new airline, Virgin America. It sounds like one of the most thorough attempts yet to create a technologically immersive travel experience — there are personal entertainment systems at every seat (not so uncommon any more on long-haul flights), but in addition to the usual selection of music and movies, they include build-your-own playlists of MP3s and, in what strikes me as an inventive but not necessarily positive development, seat-to-seat chatting. All this has been stitched together with free/open-source software, and the company has apparently made a pretty big bet on F/OSS as a generator of business value. From the article:

The IFE runs Linux, boots over the network and has a full qwerty keyboard. All the processing is done locally, with the media residing on three servers living in the rear cargo area. Every seat includes 110v power, ethernet jack and USB ports. The USB ports are handy for charging your iPod or Blackberry, but you can also plug in a keyboard to use with the IFE. There are even two wifi base stations onboard, with internet access promised sometime next year.

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I had erroneously believed that use of Open Source as a competitive advantage was no longer possible. I thought that the agility and cost benefits had spread across all industries in the same way it has taken over Wall Street. It was surprising to me to hear that Open Source technologies and a modern service-oriented architecture drastically lowers costs for Virgin and increases the speed of innovation. There is no surprise when you hear that most of the IT staff don’t come from an airline background, but are Silicon Valley engineers. I wonder what other industries are ripe for an technological infusion to shake them up?

Those of us living in flyover country won’t get to sample this creamy tech goodness ourselves any time soon (and, just looking at the photos of the plane’s interior, I’m not quite sure I ever want to experience quite so much purple in my environment). Still, it will be fascinating to see whether VA’s enthusiastic embrace of open source prompts any competitive responses from larger carriers (such as our local behemoth here in Cincinnati), who seem forever to be hunting for new ways to cut costs.

2 Responses to “Open Source and Competitive Advantage”

  1. Delta’s in flight entertainment center is already Linux-based, I believe. At least, Song’s was Linux-based (saw it rebooted once after a power outage), and I believe Delta inherited their latest in-seat tech from Song.

  2. It slowly get’s common that using open source is an competitive advantage. And it is not only because of license costs, it’s also because the OS products are (sometimes) better (in terms of usage) and more flexible (in terms of integration) – I am not sure if this is counted in current TCO studies?
    Funny enough – in my country (Germany) the (not competitive) administration of two of the three biggest cities (Munich and Berlin) is switching to OS – decision based on TCO studies.