Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 01, 2016
Quiet revolution at Netflix

Netflix has revolutionized its service this week. You might well have missed it, because there was very little communication about it. Since the latest update of the app on iOS and Android, you can now download part of the Netflix offer of films and TV shows on your mobile device to watch them later.

While there are more and more places offering WiFi, watching Netflix on the go was a problem up to now. Half of the hotels I visited on private or business travel over the last few years either had a WiFi connection too slow to watch films on Netflix smoothly, or they downright blocked access to the Netflix service in order to preserve bandwith for other customers. I once experimented with watching Netflix over a 4G connection, which worked surprisingly well, but then I got hit with a €60 bill for using far more than my data limit. There are still very few planes with any WiFi at all, and certainly not broadband WiFi, and WiFi service in trains is also spotty to non-existant. We are still decades away from having broadband WiFi service available everywhere.

The new Netflix app solves that problem by allowing you to download the films you want to see at home and then watch them in the plane without needing an internet connection. Only part of the catalogue is downloadable, and there are some weird restrictions: There doesn't seem to be a limit how long you can keep the movie you downloaded, but once you started watching it there is a little warning label that the downloaded file will expire within 48 hours. I don't see why, it looks like a feature from Mission Impossible to me: "This video will self-destruct in 48 hours. If you get caught we will deny having given it to you.".

As a change of business model this is rather huge. A movie downloading service and a movie streaming service are two very different things. Not only for travelers, but also for people with slower internet connections, which makes Netflix now far more attractive globally. But the elephant in the room that Netflix is so silent about that they barely announced the change is piracy. Of course I am perfectly aware that software exists to rip streaming movies. But having the movie downloaded as a video file somewhere on your device presumably needs a lot less work to pirate it. Which is also presumably the reason why the download functionality only works on mobile devices, and not on home computers.

Personally I am a strong believer in the idea that a large part of piracy is due to content not being available legally for a reasonable price. That is an explanation, not an excuse to break the law. But if I have access to a movie via Netflix for a low monthly flatrate, there is no reason for me to pirate that movie. Being able to download the movie on my mobile device makes the pirated copy *less* attractive and valuable to me. However Netflix still has a big problem with their US catalogue of films and TV shows being so much superior to their global offer, so I can see how this change could facilitate Netflix content being normally available only in the US to migrate via the darker side of the internet to other countries.

The only downside to this is that it will require forward planning to select and download movies in advance of travelling. I can see myself forgetting / not bothering to do this and once again falling back on the limitations of hotel wifi / 4G data.
Some hotels block netflix in order to force you to use their PPV.
A big part of beating copyright infringement is ease of use. Streaming services are now used by a lot of former freeloaders, being able to download shows for offline use will get even more subscriptions. The next steps are the removal of geoblocking and streaming at the same time as it airs.

Regarding legal availability: in an ideal world (customer view) world wide entertainment content would be available through a single streaming service. Most people I know use at least one streaming service but if you wanted to watch everything you'd have to pay for amazon, Sky, netflix, Maxdome, watchever... on top of our mandatory TV license fee.
The bus I get to work has WiFi. Of course my journey isn't long enough to use it for anything...
Can confirm this works. Just used offline mode to watch the first episode of 3% (looks good so far) while my daughter was at computer club. Realised it has an added bonus - watching in offline mode doesn't count towards the number of active streams.
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