Netflix needs streaming rentals now

Mon Apr 7, 2014

People love Netflix - the UI is fantastic, the cross-platform support is seamless, and the price is competitive. They’re creating critically-acclaimed shows, such as House of Cards, as exclusive properties to build cachet as an HBO-style player. They kickstarted the binge-watching phenomenon and have even compelled writers to redefine the conventional narrative arc of a series in light of unconventional viewing habits. But one area where they are still sorely lacking is in bringing decent new movies to the table.

You can almost predict which new movies will make it to Netflix. If they did poorly at the Box Office and were panned by the critics, chances are you’ll see it on Netflix sooner rather than later. To be fair, there are plenty of highly-esteemed foreign and indie movies on Netflix. But these offerings leave casual viewers scratching their heads and yawning at the ponderous avant-garde cinematography that pretentious critics love to fawn over.

Netflix started something beautiful. But to mature and fully realize their potential, they need to get into the streaming rental market. Or pirates will do it for them. Take Popcorn Time as an example. Billed as the a “Netflix for Pirates”, Popcorn Time is an open-source project that puts a slick Netflix-like UI onto a torrent backend.

Users can easily search or select from all the latest movies. The movie then streams in full-screen after a short delay. In the background, the pieces of a torrent file are being shared and downloaded through P2P protocols. After a computer reset, the file (located in a hidden folder on your hard drive) is erased. But the thing is, users don’t have to bother with bittorrent clients, or even know what torrents are. And that’s a dangerous precedent, as it’s never been easier to be a criminal (as you well know, sharing pirated movies is illegal in most countries).

Offering streaming rentals in Netflix would solve a number of problems for the company, assuming they can wrangle the legal side of things. Netflix is on every streaming set-top box out there from Amazon’s new Fire TV, to Google’s Chromecast, to Apple TV. Offering rentals would offer a unified and recognizable experience for the user through the Netflix platform. Rentals would also fill gaping holes in the Netflix library. I’ve no doubt that offering both free and paid search results would benefit a user looking for specific content, as long as users can still browse through the free and paid offerings independently.

Amazon, Google, and Apple may object to Netflix intruding on their territory by offering the same rental service that they do. But then they’d be missing the big picture. The real war here is not with each other, but with TV cable providers who are happy with the fragmented and user-unfriendly state of TV status quo as long as it continues to provide revenue. Competition is good, but we need an anti-cable hero we can all stand behind - and that hero could be Netflix, if we let them.

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