Now that Amazon Prime is allowing offline video playback on iOS and Android devices, Netflix needs a better explanation for why it won’t do the same.
Previously, Netflix has argued that fast, ubiquitous Wi-Fi access would eventually make offline playback irrelevant. But in 2015, on-the-go users still struggle with getting connected, whether it’s on a plane with Wi-Fi that’s too slow, or in a car where a few hours of streaming on mobile broadband can burn through your data cap.
Unfortunately, Netflix’s new excuse is even worse. Speaking to Gizmodo, Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt argued that offline playback is just too complex for people to handle. He described this as the “Paradox of Choice,” explaining that when you give people too many options, they end up not choosing anything at all. Netflix apparently believes offline playback would result in this sort of paralysis.
“Undoubtedly it adds considerable complexity to your life with Amazon Prime – you have to remember that you want to download this thing,” Hunt said. “It’s not going to be instant, you have to have the right storage on your device, you have to manage it, and I’m just not sure people are actually that compelled to do that, and that it’s worth providing that level of complexity.”
This seems a bit condescending. If users can’t navigate the supposed complexities of downloadable media, then why does virtually every on-demand streaming music service allow offline playback for songs and playlists? Clearly there’s a way for streaming services to distinguish offline playback without causing mass pandemonium.
In lieu of crippling users with choice, Hunt said Netflix wants to concentrate on making videos easier to access in more places. For instance, Netflix could install local media servers on airplanes, trains, or hotels, so users can stream without an Internet connection.
That sounds like a fine idea, but it introduces its own complexities. What if the airline you’re using offers Netflix, but not on your current plane? What if you transfer to a train without Netflix, and you can’t watch the rest of your movie? Can Netflix really install its entire catalog in local servers on every means of public transport? And can we really assume all these efforts will come at no extra cost to the user? Hunt points out that Amazon users may be frustrated if a video isn’t licensed for download, but the idea of bringing Netflix to more places has the potential to be just as maddening.
Besides, Netflix is still talking about things it would like to do in theory, while Amazon is providing a service that’s actually useful right now. Perhaps that’s why Hunt didn’t completely rule out offline playback—provided people aren’t as confused about what they want as Netflix seems to think.
“I don’t think it’d be particularly complicated to implement,” Hunt said, “but doing it right would take time.”