My friend Barbara was recently preparing for a long flight, and she asked me how to download her Netflix selections so she could watch them on the plane. "Unfortunately, you can't," I said. Netflix doesn't allow it. She asked why, and frankly, I didn't have an answer.
Coincidentally, a Netflix executive addressed this exact issue and let the cat out of the bag this week — but his answer makes absolutely no sense. Netflix apparently thinks its users aren't smart enough to know the difference between streaming and downloading, and the multi-billion dollar entertainment giant doesn't want to confuse the poor dears.
Seriously. I'm not just being snarky. Here what Neil Hunt, the company's chief product officer, told Gizmodo at a trade show in Berlin: "One of the things I've learned is that every time you offer a choice, you paralyze some people who can't decide if that's what they want to do or not. Now, that sounds really stupid and self-serving, but it is in fact true." He's right about one thing — it does sound really stupid.
Amazon Prime vs. Netflix — Fight!
So are Amazon Prime customers smarter and less apt to get befuddled? If so, that might explain why those consumers can download select movies and shows via Amazon's Prime Instant Video, while Netflix users have to stick with streaming.
Amazon was the first major streaming-video provider to allow video downloads on iOS and Android devices, for Amazon Prime customers ($99 a year). Before that, there was really no affordable way to watch the movie or TV show of your choice while sitting in an airplane unless you went old school and purchased a DVD or digital download, or transferred saved content from a computer.
"There's no doubt that the way people watch entertainment is changing — anytime, anywhere viewing is important," Michael Paull, vice president of digital video at Amazon, said this month in a press release announcing the service.
Amazon Prime's full catalog is not available for download, but the selection is fairly large and likely to grow in the future.
I'm honestly not sure Netflix why doesn't already offer this feature, and I have trouble believing the company really thinks its customers are that stupid. As far as I can tell, letting a user download a movie or a TV show raises no technical or copyright-related issues Netflix couldn't solve.
After Amazon announced the new service, Netflix spokeswoman Anne Marie Squeo told CNET that the ability to stream anywhere, thanks to climbing Internet speeds and more Wi-Fi availability, dampens the need to download. "Our focus is on delivering a great streaming experience," she said.
But that doesn't make sense either. Obviously, users don't always have access to Wi-Fi or cellular connections when they want to watch a movie.
Netflix competition ramps up
It's often hard to know why investors go hot and cold on a company, but Netflix stock took a beating recently, even if you discount the recent gyrations on Wall Street. Maybe it's the competition. Netflix is clearly the leader in streaming video, but Amazon and others are stepping up their games.
Hulu, for example, recently announced a new commercial-free premium service for an extra $4 a month, along with a content agreement with cable network Epix to pick up a long list of streaming movies that Netflix dropped when the company ended its own Epix partnership.
Netflix has a history of making big mistakes — and ultimately learning from them. A few years ago, the company tried to separate its then-new streaming business from its traditional DVD-by-mail operation, and charge more for both options. Users went nuts, Wall Street hated it, and the company quickly backed off.
I also covered a speech at Stanford by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings last year, and the man is clearly no dummy. Hopefully the burgeoning competition makes Hastings and his team realize their users aren't dummies, either.