Netflix says offline viewing will never happen, but fails to give a good reason why
Netflix is a titan of the modern video-on-demand market; between its DVD rental and online streaming service, the company has a market share that dwarfs Amazon Prime or any other competitor. The one hole in Netflix? No offline caching or playback of any sort, period. According to the company’s director of corporate communications, Cliff Edwards, that’s never going to change.
The problem with offering downloadable content, according to Edwards, is that it represents a “short-term fix for a bigger problem,” where that problem is WiFi quality and access. This is a common theme that the company has maintained throughout the years. A 2012 StackExchange question on the topic answered by Gibson Biddle, a product manager at Netflix, notes that “We chose to focus on the 95% use case where customers watch movies when they have network access and not to focus on the 5% case of airplane use or watching movies in the backseat of your car. Our focus was to make it fast and easy to play movies on a PC/laptop with good quality streams, and to build out the movie catalog as quickly as possible.”
Netflix already has sophisticated caching systems and distribution servers. It could certainly be tweaked to allow for offline play on multiple devices.
The problem with this answer is that while Biddle notes that there was a great deal of complexity to manage between multiple devices, these problems have been solved. I’ve used Netflix across two Android devices, an iOS device, and a PC simultaneously. Not only does each remember which content I’m watching, Netflix keeps a close eye on the situation. If I have Netflix open on two Android devices simultaneously and I watch content on one and not the other, the second device will still think I’m back at the old bookmark. Give the app any time at all to update, however, and it promptly updates where I’m at in a given show.
Not a technical problem
There’s no intrinsic reason why Netflix couldn’t do offline caching on the user’s computer — nor, indeed, why it couldn’t offer this feature on multiple devices simultaneously. Simple tokens could be used to authenticate content or check a time stamp since previous server check-in. In the UK, you can download BBC shows and watch them offline until 30 days after the original air date has passed — you can do this on any PC or mobile device; it’s just a simple application of DRM. I’m sure there are other streaming video providers who offer similar offline playback.
Netflix, however, is shutting down such inquiries cold, implying that there are plenty of other services available for users who want the feature and that such offerings are simply transitional. In a perfect world, this might be so. In reality, the combination of strict data caps and lousy WiFi service at many hotels and other businesses means that offline caching would be useful to a large number of people.
BBC iPlayer, a streaming TV service, lets you download shows for offline viewing — so clearly there are no technical reasons for Netflix’s reticence
The problem with the argument that WiFi just needs to keep improving is that there are a number of situations where WiFi deployments tend to fall down. If you’ve traveled, you know that hotel and airport WiFi can be spotty, even in this day and age. Hotel WiFi performance can vary dramatically, even at high-end establishments, even from room to room or floor to floor. Nor is there any evidence that this kind of solution would worsen the company’s disagreements with various ISPs over bandwidth usage — data transferred for such reasons shouldn’t be any larger or smaller than the content usage that’s causing fights already. Frankly, some users might prefer to download content simply to avoid pausing and low-quality feeds that can be the result of Netflix-ISP spats.
It’s unfortunate that Netflix is going to pointedly ignore a market segment that might be willing to pay more for a feature that let them hand crying kids on a four-hour airplane ride a tablet as opposed to Benadryl crushed into a sippy cup, but that’s the company’s current stance. It’s possible that the decision is motivated by long-term agreements with the TV and movie industries, which may be nervous about letting Netflix create such caching operations given that PCs have traditionally been used to enable a great deal of pirating. Locking down Netflix streams might be a condition of the same agreements that give the company access to the material in the first place — but clearly, as the BBC and others have shown, there are ways of allowing for offline playback that don’t increase the prevalence of piracy.
Now read: Why Netflix streaming is getting slower, and probably won’t get better any time soon
- Thanks for reading Netflix says offline viewing will never happen, but fails to give a good reason why