Flashback 1998: Reflecting on 20 Years of Netflix

When I first started using Netflix from my apartment in Manhattan in 1998, the company mailed discs first class from San Jose, CA, and I mailed them back in the prepaid envelopes to the same location. I planned on a movie spending about five days in transit each way — not much longer than trying to download it using the typical dial-up connection of the day. This was before Netflix instituted a monthly subscription rate for three discs out a time. Back then, Netflix let me rent the disc à la carte or buy it. Competitors that sold DVDs online (there were nearly 50 such websites in ’98) disparaged Netflix as never being able to survive because the most popular titles would always be out and customers would inevitably turn elsewhere. Funny how almost all those competitors are now long gone.

With Netflix building shipping and return centers around the country, I eventually became accustomed to one-day turnarounds. Then came instant streaming, which I first experienced on the debut Roku box. Eventually, Netflix streaming became so ubiquitous that my TCL TV with the Roku OS built in came with a dedicated Netflix button on the remote. As did my latest TiVo remote.

At the TV manufacturers' presentations at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a few years ago, you could always count on this common denominator: some guy from Netflix coming out on stage to talk about the latest sets and Blu-ray Disc players with Netflix built in.

Netflix has continued to surprise me. When its streaming service began, the most popular Hollywood titles were almost exclusively available only by red envelope. The streaming service has gradually increased the number of titles that played in theaters within the past year or two, but its main claim to fame is the avalanche of Netflix originals. Who knew in 1998 or even 2008 that Netflix would become as powerful as any Hollywood studio or premium cable service?

My latest surprise came on Valentine's Day. My health club had recently upgraded its motorized treadmills. As I began a 40-minute jog on the new LifeFitness machine, I noticed adjacent to its TV display a dedicated button for launching — you guessed it — Netflix! You can bet that on future encounters, I'll be searching for compatible running content — a choice I would never feel safe making while running outside with a screen phone.

On March 10, 1998, Netflix shipped out its very first disc. Two decades and more than 4 billion discs later, I think there's a good chance the company will survive.

Billy's picture

I am not sure how the company can survive just charging 14 bucks a month, but I am sure glad they can. I used to pay 103 bucks a month for Directtv with many commercials, had to watch on their schedule or use an expensive DVR. If NF can make a profit doing this for this price, how badly was I being ripped off for 20 years with Dtv? Thank goodness for affordable high speed internet. I guess paying some fool 80+ million to play football for three years was a big part of my costs, but no more. Find some other fool to pay for such foolishness.