How Netflix could blow it

Netflix streaming has become my family’s primary means of watching TV shows and movies. We long ago dropped cable TV, and for us, buying shows on iTunes was much cheaper than our monthly cable fees.

Over the summer my daughters asked for a $60 show from iTunes (29 episodes)–still cheaper than a month of cable–but Netflix was streaming it for $9/month. A netflix-capable $130 Blu-Ray player (cheaper now) should pay for itself pretty quickly and there’s no chance of buyer’s remorse over a particularly horrible show.

It all worked really well. Samsung’s Netflix app only showed our instant queue, so we loaded it with shows the kids liked or things we thought they’d be curious about. When they were allowed to watch TV, we could relax knowing they’d be choosing from a pre-screened set of programs.

As I said, it all worked really well…until this past weekend.

Saturday morning our Samsung Blu-Ray player asked to update its firmware. Unfortunately, that included an update to the Netflix app.

If the Netflix app had worked this way when I bought the DVD player, I would have immediately returned it.

There are a ton of things to criticize about the revised Samsung Netflix app, but the most glaring is that display of 4:3 content is broken. Everything which should be 4:3 is stretched wide.

It’s almost 2011, I never want to see a 4:3 image stretched wide again. Ever. If you’re a manufacturer or media company, botching display aspect-ratios sends a clear message that you don’t give a crap about your customers or the content you’re serving. Delivering your only product at the wrong size is absolutely unforgivable. Imagine if this happened with pants.*

Aside from that, the function of the application is abysmal. After the unit finishes starting up, it takes nearly 30 additional seconds to launch the app, the first 6 of which show a completely black screen. Navigation is confusing with multiple buttons having the same effect. Animated state changes are gratuitous, inconsistent, chunky and jarring. It takes 24 seconds to exit the app but only 30 seconds to power-cycle the entire unit.

There is no solution. There are no options to rollback the firmware. Samsung customer support is beyond useless.

So, I ended up buying a new Apple TV and unplugging the Samsung. I trust Apple not to screw this up. Netflix looks great on it and is seamless with the rest of Apple’s entertainment user interface.

The future of Netflix

Netflix dominates the streaming space, no one else is even close. However they seem to be at the mercy of various hardware manufacturer’s internal development teams. That, or just incredibly, stupidly lax about the quality of the applications they’re putting their name on. The lack of basic testing and quality control reflects badly on Samsung, but is much worse for Netflix.

With DVDs, the super-convenient red Netflix mailer became synonymous with their service. Netflix doesn’t own the movie experience, they own the delivery experience. Netflix wraps the movie, we’re only aware of them before and after watching something they brought to us. For the sake of their future, Netflix needs to put as much care into their streaming interfaces as they do with mail delivery. If the streaming apps degrade the experience or are unpleasant to use, customers will go elsewhere.

* pants, bad example?