Netflix has fleshed out some details of its newly announced movie download service. The Watch Now instant viewing service is scheduled to become available to all Netflix subscribers by June. It will launch with just 1,000 titles (movies and TV shows), but the selection will expand thereafter--slowly but surely--to encompass as many of the 70,000-plus titles in the Netflix database as possible. The online viewing feature will be a free addition to existing accounts, with subscribers getting a monthly allotment of online viewing time based on their subscription level. For instance, an $18-per-month plan (three DVDs out at once) garners 18 hours of online viewing time per month.
Movies are delivered directly to a Web browser using a customized plug-in. Further, they're streamed in near real time, not played back after downloading, so the experience should be as close to instant gratification as possible (your broadband bandwidth permitting, of course). For now, the service appears to be limited to Internet Explorer running on a Windows PC (according to an article in the New York Times). Speaking on CNBC's Squawk Box this morning, CEO Reed Hastings described the online viewing feature as being "as easy as YouTube" and "as good-looking as a DVD." The latter half of that statement will be the hard part to pull off: the service's advertised 3-megabit-per-second limitation, while impressive, is less than a third of that offered by DVD--though better compression algorithms and codecs could help negate that. No word on whether audio will be limited to stereo playback or if a DVD-like surround track will be available.
Of course, even (or especially) if the picture is pristine, a lot of folks will prefer to watch the movie on their big-screen TV instead of a PC monitor. Work-arounds exist (many PCs offer a TV output), but it appears Netflix is working on viewing solutions that don't require a PC: "Over the coming years we'll expand our selection of films, and we'll work to get to every Internet-connected screen, from cell phones to PCs to plasma screens. The PC screen is the best Internet-connected screen today, so we are starting there," Hastings says in the press release.
One thing's for sure: given the host of IPTV announcements at last week's CES (as well as Apple TV at Macworld), it appears that 2007 could finally be the breakthrough year for digitally delivered media.
Note: The video walk-through of the Netflix Watch Now service is courtesy of HackingNetflix.com.