Netflix is considering to let its subscribers download content for offline viewing, suggested CEO Reed Hastings during the company’s Q1 2016 earnings call Monday. That’s great news for anyone looking to watch Netflix in mid-flight — but in reality, offline viewing is all about Netflix’s global ambitions.
Offline viewing isn’t an entirely new concept. Consumers have long been able to download movies and TV show episodes from transactional services like iTunes or Google Play, and Amazon has also been offering Prime Video subscribers the ability to temporarily download content for offline viewing.
Asked why Netflix isn’t providing consumers with the same option, Hastings said Monday that the company should “keep an open mind on this.”
That’s a notable change in tone from previous statements. Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt told Gizmodo last September that he didn’t consider downloads “a compelling proposition,” and argued that it would add unnecessary complexity to the service. In the past, executives had also argued that connectivity was quickly becoming ubiquitous, taking away the need for any offline viewing.
There’s some truth to that: Wireless connectivity has greatly expanded over the past couple of years, and service providers like T-Mobile are starting to embrace Netflix and other types of video streaming as a key consumption pattern. Even U.S. airlines are starting to embrace in-flight Netflix streaming, reducing the number of places where you can’t binge on “House of Cards” or “Jessica Jones.”
So why is Netflix thinking about offline viewing now? Hastings answered that question himself Monday: “As we expand around the world, (…) we see an uneven set of networks.” In other words: We may be approaching ubiquitous connectivity in the U.S., but other countries are still years away from such lofty goals.
Countries that increasingly matter to Netflix, one might add: The company took a major step towards becoming a global video network this January by launching its service in 130 additional countries. With the exception of China and a handful of smaller markets, Netflix is now available almost everywhere — everywhere where there’s connectivity, that is.
Mobile data and even wireline networks are still far less developed in many of Netflix’s new markets. Netflix’s own ISP speed index doesn’t list many of the company’s new markets yet, but even data from South America shows a wide variety of connectivity conditions, with average speeds in Costa Rica being 1.87 Mbps, while being 2.84 Mbps in Uruguay.
What’s more, data from global CDN specialist Akamai shows that networking speeds have been improving rapidly in the developed world over the past couple of years, but are flat or only slowly improving in parts of the developing world, including population juggernauts like India.
YouTube reacted to this gap in late 2014 by selectively introducing offline viewing for consumers in Southeast Asia. The idea: Consumers can download content over night, or while they have access to a faster connection at the office, and then watch it without having to rely on their home or mobile broadband connections for real-time streaming.
There’s no word yet on whether Netflix may consider a similar approach of making offline features available market-by-market, but it’s clear that the company isn’t rethinking its stance towards the matter to give Western viewers something to do on Wifi-free airplanes. Instead, it’s all about capturing more of those 1.25 billion eyeballs in India by actually making it possible for them to watch Netflix at all.