Netflix, which describes itself as the world’s leading internet television network, will be delivering 4K streams “within a year or two”. The company, which has long pioneered social features, now allows its members in the United States to link their accounts to Facebook to share their viewing preferences. Netflix has also launched a contest open to developers to improve its cloud based software platform. Although it has 33 million members worldwide, Netflix faces increasing competition.
“We expect to be delivering 4K within a year or two with at least some movies and then over time become an important source of 4K,” Neil Hunt, the chief product officer for Netflix told online publication The Verge. “4K will likely be streamed first before it goes anywhere else.”
That statement may be open to challenge by pay-television operators, who are already experimenting with 4K, but notably Netflix was demonstrating 4K video at the CES trade show in January.
The Netflix commissioned version of House of Cards, like many movies, was mainly shot in 4K, although it was mastered in high-definition. Netflix plans to produce 4K encodes later this year.
While we may be approaching the saturation point in terms of spatial resolution, with 4K offering four times as many pixels has high-definition, there is more to be done in increasing the temporal resolution or frame rate, which has remained largely unchanged.
The Ultra-HD standard allows for 48, 60 or 120 frames per second, but this is still not widely supported. Netflix would like to see 60 frames per second become the routine production standard rather than the exception. That may still be some way off, and is unlikely to be driven by Netflix.
At the moment, a major problem that Netflix faces is the inconsistency of assets it receives from movie studios and television networks. As a result it rejects 30% of the assets it receives.
“I can’t imagine any other industry surviving when they misdeliver three out of ten different assets,” he said. “We get the wrong episode, or we get a soundtrack that doesn’t match the content, or it has a giant drop-out, or the ads haven’t been stripped out.”
While Netflix can cope with various forms of encoding, it says the industry needs a standard for high quality transfers, known in the trade as a mezzanine format. More importantly, there needs to be industry standardisation around asset management and metadata exchange.
Netflix is also pushing its Open Connect distribution network which aims to provide servers at common peering points or within the network of internet service providers, enabling media to be pushed out and cached closer to the user. The majority of Netflix traffic in Europe is delivered in this way, through the participation of network providers like BT.
The Netflix ISP Speed Index publishes details of the average speed for customers by country and service provider. The highest speeds in the United States were for Google Fiber and Cablevision, at 3.35 megabits per second and 2.35Mbps respectively. In the United Kingdom, Virgin Media and BT led with 2.37 and 2.25Mbps. Average speeds in the Nordic countries were slightly higher, but not by much.
All of which suggests that the average Netflix customer is currently receiving a relatively low bitrate stream compared to high-definition television broadcasts. So distribution of 4K video, which has much higher bandwidth requirements, while theoretically possible today may not be widespread for some time.
Meanwhile, there are many other ways in which Netflix can continue to improve the user experience. The company has always had a strong focus on making personal recommendations, partly because of its business model. It has to build value out of the library of programming it has available.
“People think they want to watch what has been marketed heavily in the past weeks on TV, radio, billboards, etc.” explained Hunt, who also oversees the user data that Netflix is generating. “We typically don’t have those titles, because they are way too expensive to fit into $8 a month. So we have to change the model and suggest or recommend titles that people find interesting and compelling. That way we build value out of content that we can afford.”
Netflix has rolled out deeper integration with Facebook for its American customers. Members will have the option to connect their Netflix account to Facebook to share details of what they watch and see what their friends are watching. Such social features have been available to international users for more than a year.
After lobbying for a change in the law, the opt-in social features are now available in the United States. The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 previously prevented movie rental companies from sharing the viewing records of customers.
Netflix is an advocate of cloud computing, relying on Amazon Web Services for its platform, and making some of its software available as open source projects. It has launched a developer competition with a total prize fund of $100,000 for developers to improve upon various aspects of its platform.
Netflix continues to innovate, while others imitate. The Redbox Instant video streaming service in partnership with Verizon has now launched to the public. The proposition is similar to Netflix, undercutting it in price, although the range of titles is currently restricted to around 4,600, around half the number of movies available on Netflix.
Netflix 33 million members worldwide and many are enthusiastic supporters of its streaming model, not least because it is perceived as a disruptive alternative to discs and traditional video on demand services.
Netflix cannot afford not to continue to invest in delivering a better experience for its customers. The question is whether its competitors can afford to let it succeed.