Netflix's streaming future: Classics online, new movies in the mail

Last week, we published a review of the Roku Netflix Player, a $99 box that lets you use the Internet to stream movies and TV shows straight into your TV from Netflix. It's not a perfect solution, but it's a handy, inexpensive way to get some extra videos from Netflix while you're waiting for that red envelope to arrive.

Netflix has been streaming videos to personal computers for over a year, and while the Roku player is the first non-PC device to download videos from Netflix, it won't be the last. The Xbox 360 is scheduled to get streaming Netflix support in the system's upcoming dashboard upgrade, due this fall. The LG BD300 Blu-Ray player will also include streaming Netflix support when it comes out this fall.

This direct-to-TV (at least, through a home theater gadget and not a computer) movie streaming is a handy bonus for Netflix subscribers, since it puts thousands of movies directly at their fingertips instead of creeping them in through the mailbox. Unfortunately, Netflix's streaming library, currently containing 12,000 movies and episodes of television shows, is utterly dwarfed by the company's 100,000 individual DVD titles. Worse yet, few, if any, of the 12,000 stream-able videos are freshly released chart-busters. There are plenty of older classics and amusingly obscure titles, but if you want a Best Picture released in the last decade you're better off waiting for the mail.

I spoke with a Netflix PR representative to find out what their plans were for the future of streaming video.

Unfortunately, you're not likely to see any recent Hollywood blockbusters streamed to your Roku Player/Xbox 360/Blu-ray player any time soon. The spokesman explained that digital releases of new movies are either too expensive or simply unavailable, and that Netflix puts a priority on expanding its library without strictly focusing on big names or recent blockbusters. Of course, since streaming users are Netflix members anyway (Netflix's streaming service is free with all DVD memberships at least $8.99 per month), they can get the new releases mailed to them while they watch older, more obscure fare. It's not a shining example of the future of streaming video technology, but it's still something to do while you're waiting for the mailman. He said that the more unusual and older video selections available to stream are still valuable to Netflix users, citing that only 28% of all Netflix DVDs shipped are new releases, compared to over 80% of DVDs rented from brick-and-mortar stores like Blockbuster.

Despite the lack of new releases, he noticed that Netflix will still expand its streaming video library whenever it can. When Netflix started streaming videos to computers a year and a half ago, it had only 2,000 videos available, compared to the 12,000 available today. The spokesman was hesitant to offer any hard numbers for Netflix's growing library, only saying that it will grow as more digital content becomes available. Considering the 600% increase in titles over the last 18 months, it's safe to say that the library will steadily get bigger.

It's very clear that Netflix will keep most of its focus on DVD rentals, and that the service won't be going "disc-less" any time in the foreseeable future. The spokesman explained that DVDs are ubiquitous, and won't "peak" for another five or ten years. Since Netflix currently has approximately 56 million DVDs covering 100,000 individual titles, it's simply unlikely that the company will just switch to a completely digital distribution model. As long as millions of customers own DVD players, Netflix will keep mailing them out.

Even without the benefit of new releases, Netflix's streaming video service still looks like a good deal. If it were a stand-alone subscription service, the 12,000-title library of older and esoteric videos might not be very tempting, but as a bonus available to most Netflix subscribers it's a steal. For the millions of Xbox 360 owners out there, it'll mean quick access to thousands of movies without dealing with Microsoft Points and the Xbox Live Marketplace, after the Fall Dashboard update. Even the Roku Netflix Player seems like a potential bargain, when you compare its $99 price tag to DVD or pay-per-view prices. The price of ten weird old flicks from a DVD bargain bin can get you 12,000 weird flicks and TV shows through Netflix.

But if you want to see the newest movies as they hit shelves? Your DVD/Blu-ray player is still your best friend for the time being.

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