It’s been 4 years since Netflix’s “Qwikster” fiasco, in which the company infamously tried to separate its DVD business, eliciting emphatic objections from its subscribers. Netflix offered implausible explanations for its move and ultimately reversed itself. Since then the company has executed flawlessly, expanding its content, extending its international footprint, watching its stock price soar and most importantly, winning back the love of its subscribers.
Thus it is perplexing and frustrating to see Netflix oppose the idea of enabling its content to be downloaded for offline viewing, as an augment to streaming it. Reminiscent of Qwikster, Netflix is offering up bizarre and non-sensical explanations for opposing the download feature that it readily admits its subscribers are hungry for. Further, with Amazon’s expansion of Prime Video downloading to iOS and Android devices last week, it also appears to be a new competitive lever among SVOD providers.
In an interview with Gizmodo UK at the IFA trade show in Berlin, Neil Hunt, Netflix’s Chief Product Officer, said about downloading, “I still don’t think it’s a very compelling proposition,” emphasizing how much “complexity” it would create for subscribers in terms of storage on your device, remembering to download and needing to manage the downloads. Hunt further compared the download feature to the “Paradox of Choice” experiment in which too much choice acts to reduce the level of user activity.
It’s worth reading the full quotes on Gizmodo UK to get a full sense of how strange the explanation is and also how condescending toward Netflix’s subscribers it comes across. Who believes that Netflix subscribers can’t click a download button on their device, watch a download progress bar and access content from their download library? Or monitor the space available on their device and delete files as they’re viewed? Hunt’s comments make it seem like the company lacks a real understanding of its subscribers.
The reality is that a download feature would be massively popular for Netflix subscribers and would dramatically enhance the value of a subscription. Downloading is a perfect complement to streaming, as I can personally attest since I’ve been downloading content via TiVo for almost 3 years now. When TiVo introduced the feature I called it a bona fide killer app, and I believe it more than ever.
As we all know, out-of-home streaming presents numerous challenges. Carriers’ mobile data plans are still very expensive, which means streaming any real volume of video is prohibitive. That leaves most of us using WiFi, which is available in more places than ever, but with quality that’s all over the board and is often insufficient for streaming (e.g. Amtrak from Boston to NYC). Meanwhile, there are countless times when WiFi simply isn’t an option, such as on airplanes, in the car or at the gym.
It’s practically inconceivable that Netflix is unaware of all the benefits that downloading would bring to its subscribers. For Netflix itself the benefits would extend beyond just improved subscriber satisfaction. If Netflix could shift some of its consumption from streaming to downloading, there would also likely be financial upside because downloads could be queued to occur at off-peak times resulting in lower bandwidth costs.
So, if there are substantial benefits all around, then what are we to make of Hunt’s implausible explanation? What might be the real reason Netflix resists downloading? The only thing I can think of is that Netflix lacks ubiquitous rights for its licensed content to offer downloading. So it could be limited to potentially offering some licensed content and maybe all of its originals for downloading.
For a company that has been dogged about a consistent user experience, the idea of incomplete downloading may just be enough to sour it on the concept completely. (It’s worth noting that although Amazon’s downloading is incomplete, with just a sub-section of its content initially available for downloading, there's still a lot of really good stuff included.)
I’d venture that savvy Netflix subscribers would rather have access to some content to download than none at all. In particular, being able to download originals would be a great way to distinguish them and foster interest. Further, Netflix should be working toward obtaining ubiquitous downloading rights from its content partners. One big advantage Netflix has is that there are no ads, so one huge obstacle is removed.
Downloading seems doable, if Netflix wants to offer it. But for now at least, Netflix seems totally disinterested. Capping off Hunt’s remarks to Gizmodo, he instead imagines a world where “Netflix is in a rack box…in an airplane server” - an approach that seems like it has no short-term scalability. Why not just let subscribers download what they want and take it with them on the plane? Netflix’s anti-downloading stance isn’t as obtuse as Qwikster was, but it still makes you wonder about their decision-making process.