in Media, Mobile

Last month, Netflix hinted at (finally!) reversing its position on users downloading videos from its content library. It must’ve been a difficult decision to make, especially as back in 2014 the streaming giant went as far as saying that offline viewing was “never going to happen.”

It was a peculiar choice at the time, and looking back at it two years later it still seems odd. Lots of other big players, including Amazon Prime, have given subscribers the ability to store films and TV shows locally on their devices for a while now.

It’s become a well received approach for working around restrictive data usage caps or a lack of mobile internet connectivity and is especially useful during air travel or with devices that rely on Wi-Fi exclusively. Yet, until recently, Netflix remained steadfast on its decision not to do this – a strange choice indeed.

Method in the madness

But there was a reason (or, indeed, reasons) behind it. Despite being the perfect example of why it’s best to never say, on record, that you won’t do something everyone else in the industry is leaning towards, it’s almost understandable why Netflix originally made such a bold statement.

In 2014, Netflix’s argument centred around the fact data connectivity was supposed to improve no end in the coming months. Within five years, widespread public Wi-Fi and quality mobile internet access was expected to be a common thing.

I can see the logic behind that. 4G was moving in the right direction at the time, while a mix of 3G and public Wi-Fi was filling the gaps elsewhere. Access to internet connectivity on mobile devices wasn’t difficult to come across, and it still isn’t. But the problem was, and still is, bandwidth and cost.

Many people have restrictive data limits on their mobile contracts and video compression can only go so far. Even when streaming video using a lower quality setting, Netflix is going to take a significant dent out of the monthly allowance of capped users.

By Netflix’s own admission (via the help page on its website) you’ll only get a maximum of four hours streaming video per GB of data. If you’re restricted to 2GB per month, for example, and you’re a heavy user of other data intensive applications like most of us are, Netflix is going to chew through that very quickly.

Other issues

Public Wi-Fi hasn’t solved the problem either. Security and privacy concerns associated with unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots have hit the headlines in recent months, becoming a much bigger issue that in previous years.

For some, it’s enough to prevent them from connecting to public Wi-Fi altogether. For others, even if you put those security considerations to one side, bandwidth is still a challenge.

By its design, public Wi-Fi is intended to be used by lots of users at once. Chances are, especially if it’s in a busy location, you’ll struggle to stay connected. The sheer weight of other devices trying to use the same access point will cause congestion.

Even if by some miracle you do get online, it’s not guaranteed you’ll be able to stream anything. Buffering could be an issue, unless the venue in question has invested properly in its Wi-Fi offering.

This varies by region, of course. The US is more heavily kitted out with high quality public Wi-Fi than other countries, for example, but it’s still an important factor across the board.

Netflix’s global domination

There’s other considerations, too. Since January 2016 Netflix has been available practically all around the world, which has no doubt presented a number of extra challenges in relation to video streaming logistics and content delivery.

Netflix has got more users than ever now, but not all data networks are created equal and there’s lots of inconsistency around the globe.

The answer? Offline viewing. It goes a long way to solving these problems, and will likely win the service some new fans in the process.

So that’s how Netflix ended up taking the decision to reverse it’s original statement, and why it’s almost a dead cert that offline viewing will become a new feature for the streaming service in the near future.

If there’s a lesson here it’s that you should never say never. It might come back to bite you.

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