Offline downloads are perhaps the most often requested, "holy grail" feature of TV and movie streaming services, and while Netflix may be the leading provider, it's Amazon and its Prime Instant Video service that's become the first to offer it. Netflix however remains firm in its stance that it's not going to offer offline downloads through its mobile applications, even in the face of competition from its rival. But why?
According to Neil Hunt, Netflix's Chief Product Officer, Netflix users won't be able to handle the complexity the added choice will bring.
"I still don't think it's a very compelling proposition," said Hunt, speaking to Gizmodo UK at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin.
"I think it's something that lots of people ask for. We'll see if it's something lots of people will use. Undoubtedly it adds considerable complexity to your life with Amazon Prime — you have to remember that you want to download this thing. 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."
The 'Paradox of Choice'
According to Hunt, this "Paradox of Choice" can leave some weak-willed users paralysed, pausing their binge-viewing sessions while mulling over how next to proceed:
"One of the things I've learned is that every time you offer a choice, you paralyse 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. It's the 'Paradox of Choice', the jam experiment — you put strawberry, apricot and blackberry jam in the supermarket aisle and you can persuade half the people coming down the aisle to taste the jam and maybe buy one. But if you decide to add lemon, orange, blueberry and grapefruit, by adding the choices you don't increase the number of people choosing one, but in fact you go the other way. Fewer people choose anything at all."
It may seem like a lukewarm excuse from the streaming giant, but earlier experiments by Netflix towards adding new user-requested features have apparently proved that even incremental change can turn off some users.
"Every time you add a control, you reduce the total number of users who use them," explained Hunt.
"We did an experiment with our five star rating system, for instance; everybody said 'you've got to do half stars', people really wanting to say a film is worth three and a half stars, 'I didn't just like it, nor really love it.' So we left all the graphics exactly the same, except letting you light up an extra half a star, really simple. We had 11 per cent less ratings coming in! Just insane! We've plenty of cases where we've seen that happen."
Putting All of Netflix on a Plane
So, if not offline downloads, what does the future hold for Netflix? According to Hunt, it's about more robust streaming options, and even the possibility of dedicated local Netflix services for public transport system.
"I think a much more interesting proposition is, can we make streaming work better in more places that people want to stream?" mused Hunt.
"As an example, what if we can put Netflix in a rack box that essentially contains all of Netflix content that you could imagine putting in an aeroplane server, right along with our existing offerings? That for me is a more interesting thing; can we make Netflix work on a plane, can we make it work on a train, in hotels? That doesn't necessarily get you Netflix everywhere, all the time. But I think if we can make that work well, that's a more interesting proposition than trying to change consumer behaviours."
For now, Netflix is holding its cards to its chest. While it's not willing to jump in and follow Amazon's lead until it proves itself worth the development effort, Netflix is still poised to jump in and add it's own similar download features if the public demand (and an excellent Amazon user experience) makes it unavoidable.
"I don't think it'd be particularly complicated to implement, but doing it right would take time," says Hunt.
"Another complexity for Amazon is that a lot of their content isn't licensed for download, so only some of it is downloadable. You'll say 'I wanna watch this offline', and it will frustrate when it won't be available. I don't think it's something we necessarily need to pursue right away.
"I think Amazon is playing a good game of PR, but I'm not sure it's a good consumer experience. We'll see."
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