On October 27 (last month), Netflix started testing a new way to stream movies for its Watch Instantly feature. They began using Microsoft’s Silverlight player, which is platform-independent and can still handle the DRM that movie studios love so much. This meant that Mac users were no longer left out of the picture, and could finally watch Netflix streaming movies on their machines.
On October 31, they finished their first round of testing and allowed all Netflix customers to opt into the new feature. They cautioned users that there might still be some bugs and lower-than-expected quality on some movies. I started using the new feature immediately, and after having watched a few movies, here are my impressions:
- Streaming quality is indeed a bit lower than expected on some movies, and during some scenes. Not sure why, but it’s not prevalent, and will likely be addressed soon.
- PowerPC Macs are left out of the picture, not due to Netflix, but Microsoft, who have not released a version of Silverlight for PowerPC Macs — I doubt they will, unfortunately. This means our iMac G5, which now works great (after repeated trips to the Apple Store for repairs), will never be able to stream Netflix movies. I think that’s pretty sad.
- Silverlight doesn’t come with any preference pane for Macs where its various options can be adjusted. This means that unless certain of its built-in options are adjusted “from the factory”, so to speak, your Mac’s screen will go dim and your screensaver will come on while you’re watching a movie on full screen. Your Mac might even go to sleep. Every time the screensaver comes on, Silverlight exits full screen mode. This gets old pretty quickly, as you can imagine, and it’s not ideal by any measurement.
- Movies cache and play much quicker than before.
- Netflix will remember where I stopped watching a movie, and will bring me back to that exact point when I log on again and hit play on a title. I watched a portion of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen while logged onto Netflix from Safari, then went to bed; the next day, I logged on through Firefox, clicked on Play, and almost instantly, the movie started playing from the very spot where I’d stopped watching.
- Did I mention we can watch streaming movies on our Macs, finally? This is incredibly cool!
I couldn’t be happier with Netflix. As a service, I think it’s one of the best business ideas that was ever put into practice. It fulfills a customer need at a reasonable price, and (at least for now), that price includes the ability to watch a LOT of streaming movies at no extra charge. I say “for now” because, let’s face it, there are costs associated with licensing and serving streaming movies (copyrights, hardware, bandwidth, overhead, etc.), and at some point, I think Netflix will have to adjust its prices to reflect this. I don’t think the price changes at that point will be big, but as more and more people start using the Watch Instantly feature, the extra usage will need to be taken into account.
I also believe that long-term, Netflix intends to emphasize its movie streaming service and slowly phase out its DVD mailers. It won’t happen until they can ensure a ubiquitous streaming experience for its customers, and that means flawless streaming for TVs and computers alike. They’ve already made incredible inroads with Roku, Xbox 360, and with Tivo, which can all stream Netflix movies directly to TVs. Now that you can watch streaming movies on both Macs and PCs, things are looking better and better, and Apple TV looks more hamstrung than ever.