In a move that was long, long overdue, Netflix announced yesterday that it was enabling downloading of content to iOS and Android mobile devices. Not all shows and movies are available for download, but importantly, it looks like most, if not all, of Netflix’s original productions are included. I tried downloading last night and it worked perfectly.
I’ve been saying since 2012 that downloading is a bona fide killer app, after I first started using TiVo’s excellent downloading feature to watch recordings on my iPad when traveling. Amazon totally understood the value of downloading as well, enabling it back in September, 2015. In a press release that both touted the new feature and implicitly tweaked Netflix, Amazon proclaimed it as “The First and Only Subscription Streaming Service to Offer This Feature.”
All the while, Netflix was not only not offering downloading, its senior executives were dismissive of the value of downloading. Right on the heels of Amazon’s downloading announcement last September, Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt said at a conference in Berlin, “I still don’t think it’s a very compelling proposition” and then listed a range of ridiculous-sounding reasons users wouldn’t be able to get their heads around downloading such as remembering to download, having the right storage, managing it, etc. Instead, Hunt offered up an incongruous alternative: installing racks of Netflix servers on airplanes for offline use. Huh?
Perhaps most perplexing was that Hunt conceded “I think it’s something that lots of people ask for,” before dousing that interest with cold water, saying “We’ll see if it’s something lots of people will use.”
Downloading is such an obvious win, it’s bizarre it’s taken Netflix so long to come around. How often do many of us find ourselves in situations where we want to watch Netflix but the WiFi connection quality just isn’t sufficient? It goes without saying that streaming large quantities of data via a mobile carrier is a budget buster. Programs like T-Mobile’s Binge-On are great, but again, that assumes you can actually get a quality connection (so much for airplanes for example).
Having watched tons of content downloaded from TiVo and Amazon over the years, one other important benefit is that the experience is far more responsive than when streaming. Ever try to repeatedly rewind and fast-forward a stream, only to have it get hung up? That’s just the nature of trying to manipulate data-intensive media that’s coming from the cloud. Conversely, when the whole file is stored on the device, scrubbing to the exact point to watch is seamless and the viewer is in full control.
No doubt content rights played a big part in Netflix’s delay in offering downloading. But even that raises the question why didn’t Netflix secure these rights initially? That may be because, as evidenced by Hunt’s comments, Netflix management just didn’t believe in the feature. Once they finally realized they needed to offer downloading, they had to go back and get those rights where they could. Or maybe there are other reasons, who knows.
Bottom line, in an increasingly competitive SVOD landscape, offering downloading is table stakes. Users are looking to squeeze as much value as possible from their subscriptions, and watching offline is a critical way to enjoy premium content. It’s great to see Netflix finally get religion on downloading, and no doubt users are going to be very excited about it.