Gently Down the Stream

Streaming is hot. Outfits like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO Go are jamming the internet with data and putting the hurt on DVD and even Blu-ray. Last time I checked, smart phones, tablets, and ultrabooks lacked optical disc drives. Besides, do you really want to mess with disc-based playback on the train to work? Streaming is entering the hockey stick part of its growth curve.

The newest kid on the block is Redbox Instant. You know those red disc vending machines you see at the super market? Redbox Instant is the same thing, but you don't need to buy Doritos (aisle 5, BTW). A joint venture with Verizon, RI has been in private beta testing since December, and by the time you read this, will probably be in public beta. The terms are straightforward: for 8 bucks a month, subscribers get unlimited streaming as well as four DVD rentals.

The downside: not surprisingly, the RI catalog is smaller than Netflix's. One potential upside: RI might be able to rent you a DVD that isn't yet available for streaming. Interestingly, half of Redbox's box users also subscribe to a service as Netflix; the company hopes to steal away those folks.

I'm certain that Netflix was sorry to rain on RI's parade, but just as RI was making its market-entry announcements, Netflix was leaking the news that it expects to stream in 4k within a year or two. The company needs to sort out its compression coding and codecs but it already has in-house 4k content (such as House of Cards) in the can. The catch is the bit rate of 20 to 40 Mbps; most households don't have nearly that much bandwidth. Of course, you'll also need a 4k TV. Even given the difficulties in streaming 4k, Netflix believes that 4k will more readily arrive as streams, as opposed to broadcast or Blu-ray.

One last stream-related tidbit: A "Zero TV" household is one that doesn't have a cable or satellite hookup. According to Nielsen, in 2007, there were 3 million ZTV households; now there are 5 million. A sign of economic distress? Or is this 5% of the market leading the way to a future where people eschew the traditional methods and instead get their video through streaming? Supporting the future argument: almost half of ZTV households are young – under the age of 35. Like I said: hockey stick.