Netflix is by far the most used streaming service used in North America, and they are spreading fast into other countries. For those of you who don’t have the chance to live in a country where Netflix is available yet, techniques exist to watch US Netflix from any country.
Netflix is incredibly good, it has a large selection of movies and that keeps growing. Nevertheless, the service is far from perfect, and, as I discussed with friends about their own experience with Netflix, I came up with 5 realistic action items for the Netflix experience to dramatically improve.
The main issues with Netflix revolve around its selection (which can never be big enough for movie lovers), its interface, and the “discovery” factor (the possibility for you to discover and watch movies you wouldn’t think of initially). Don’t get me wrong, on all these points, Netflix is far better than most of the competition, but I can’t help but think for many points, there is somewhere a competitor that does better than them.
Here are the solutions I suggest, with an explanation of the problem they solve.
Please keep in mind that most of my experience with Netflix is on their Android and PS3 interfaces. Some of the things I suggest might be available to other platforms already.
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1. Better social network integration
Netflix recently added a “popular on facebook” section to their interface, to help people find interesting stuff to watch. Let me be clear here: I don’t care what’s popular for a group of millions of people on facebook. I care what’s popular among my friends, and, maybe more importantly, people whom movie judgement I trust. These people are not necessarily my friends. Maybe I’ll trust the judgement of the cool guys at Red Letter Media, or the late Roger Ebert, or my wife’s friend who’s a douchebag but has incredible insight on movie quality.
These people are not necessarily my “friends”, and maybe I don’t want to follow them on my generic twitter account. But I need to be able to see what these guys think on Netflix.
The solution: a way for people to register to a circle of people they follow on netflix. Several “groups”, like the Google+ system, would even be better: these are the people I trust for their tastes in horror movies, these are the people I trust for family movies, and so on. Once this system in in place (either through a partnership with one of the big Social networks, or internally within Netflix itself), we can think of additional cool interaction: share your watching list with friends, message some of them for their opinion, filter search/browse results to only show the rating average of the people you follow, etc…
Netflix’s suggestion system is ok today, but this would make it much better.
2. Better interface
Netflix’s interface is simple enough, and, at least on the PS3 and Android, is designed in a way that you’ll rarely want to check the “browse” section, and instead spend most of your time on the main page. Not that the main page is great, but the browse section is not so great that you’ll go through the pain of leaving the main page. I’ve discussed above how discovery could easily be improved with social network integration, but I also think a better interface would help netflix a lot.
There are ways to keep it simple but much more entertaining. XBMC here is my example of choice because the open source tool has a great and intuitive interface despite being extremely flexible.
For example, the possibility to choose a “view mode” (thumbnails, list, etc…) in XBMC is great. The thumbnails in Netflix are ok, but a little bit of customization here would be appreciated. Another interface that comes to mind is the Kaleidescape’s “flyover” interface, which, although not practical, looks much more entertaining than the netflix one.
More customization would help power users to filter their movies better too, I am tired to see suggestions for stuff I know I don’t want to watch. (Netflix for example introduced the “profiles” recently, which is a great move in the right direction for this. I finally don’t see the suggestions for my wife and kid)
Back to the XBMC comparison, some of the addons provided by XBMC are simply awesome. One of them gives you a slideshow with pictures of all movies in your collection. Something like that on Netflix would be neat. It might sound useless, but at the end of the day, the battle for the living room means any of these applications wants to be your “default”, the one that stays up all the time because you like its screensaver, and the fact that it gives you access to all your other content. So, a relevant screensaver might sound dumb, but is one more point in favor of tools like XBMC today.
3. Richer experience with IMDb, rottentomates, TVDB integration
I’m a movie lover. But I also like to collect them. I’ll mention XBMC here again, which has great summaries, ratings, fan art, etc… for each movie I own. If Netflix was smoothly integrated with sites such as IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, it would be easy to access critics reviews, better summaries, trivia ,etc… about the movie.
Thinking also about the “flyover” interface above, one thing that hit me is how the “summary” section of the movies on the Kaleidescape could provide much more information, with the year, director name, main actors, reviews, etc…
This would again help with discovery, and contribute to Netflix becoming the one entry point for people into their movie collection
4. Acquire VUDU
VUDU is a private company that provides Streaming services, and in many ways is one of Netflix’s competitors. One of the services they provided recently is the “disc to digital” feature, a feature which lets you access movies you own directly from the cloud (and from *their* interface), without actually having to rip it. It works by being able to authenticate your DVDs somehow, then let you access them in the cloud.
This is not a killer feature, but one of those that, if done correctly, would let Netflix increase its selection by a significant amount. Of course, with the stubbornness of some movie studios, that feature is today extremely limited on VUDU, but Netflix, with its leverage power, could turn it into a nice way for people to access movies that are not yet available in Netflix’s catalog.
Of course acquiring a competitor does not happen overnight, but instead Netflix could very well implement similar features as what VUDU does today.
5. Let me play my own files, and offer some cloud storage
One of the reasons I love the Amazon MP3 App on Android is because it offers a seamless way to access the mp3s I purchased from amazon themselves, the ones stored on my device, and the ones I store on my amazon cloud account.
Having this option on Netflix would be a killer feature for selection. I don’t expect Netflix to ever have all movies ever made. But imagine their current experience coupled with some Cloud storage service for my own movies (I’ll let them think of the pricing for this), and access to my local storage…
Netflix could easily make a player that plays more formats than it does today, come up with some cloud storage service, and bundle all of that in the current experience: Make it seamless enough that with the default settings, users don’t even have to know which movie is on Netflix, and which one is in their personal cloud account.
This one idea would probably meet some resistance from most of Netflix’s partners, but if Amazon was able to do it with music, Netflix can surely do it with movies. Once achieved, this would more or less end the issues about Netflix’s selection, since virtually every movie would be available to you as long as it is either on Netflix itself, or in your own library.
Netflix have said several times they don’t want a complex pricing system, which is why they provide a unique service for a unique price. I think however that my proposed suggestion here would dramatically help them getting more customers. Amazon’s cloud started with a few GB free where people could upload their own MP3s and play them in the cloud player. From there, they got more and more people to buy directly from their store.
In the race for the living room, Netflix could easily become the default application most people run on their Smart TV or TV box today. The 5 points above are achievable in a reasonable timeframe and would provide a dramatic improvement on NEtflix’s selection, user friendliness, and content discovery.