Sorry Apple, Netflix Is Just Too Good

by James R. Stoup Jan 28, 2008

I like what Apple is trying to accomplish with their new movie rental service and applaud them for boldly moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, they are a long way from reaching the point at which I would actually pay for this service. So, kudos to you Apple for trying, but I think I will stick with Netflix for a while longer. But in the spirit of fairness, I must give them credit for doing a few things right. So, here are my thoughts on this newest venture and where I feel they should take it in the future.

The idea behind renting movies online is great. In fact, it is something I have been waiting for for quite a while. So I have to give them credit for taking something as potentially annoying as renting movies and applying the “Apple Touch.” They have made great strides in making things much simpler than just about anyone else out there.

Apple has managed to get all the major studios on board with this project and they have a starting library of around 1,000 titles. And while initially that number might look low (Netflix has over 90,000 titles for comparison), I wouldn’t be too worried because Apple will be furiously adding new films as the year goes on. So, if your favorite movie isn’t on there yet, wait till June and see what they’ve added then. Granted, this doesn’t help you much right now, but of all the problems with this service, this is one that will solve itself given enough time.

High Def fans will be happy to know that for just a dollar more they can rent titles in HD. I can’t imagine how big the files must be, but I’m impressed that this was an option. Better yet, Apple TV now behaves more like an appliance and less like a computer! This means that you can now access, buy, and rent media without syncing it to another computer. In fact, one of Apple’s big selling points was that you can hook up your Apple TV to your brand new HD TV and rent High Def movies instantly. Clearly, then, they are trying to improve the user experience as much as they can. In fact, much of what I liked most about this service directly relates to how Apple has streamlined the interface. They have done a nice job of retooling things to better fit this new model.

Sadly, what I like least about these new rentals is what was least in their control, the DRM rules. The notion that your purchases will be automatically deleted because you weren’t fast enough to watch them pisses me off quite a bit. Fruit goes bad. Milk expires. Digital media, on the other hand, shouldn’t have a time limit on it. And there really isn’t anything Apple can do to convince me otherwise. I just can’t bring myself to spend money to rent a movie when I know that if I accidentally play 1 second of it, then suddenly I have started the countdown toward its eventual deletion. Having used Netflix for over a year now, I have become quite satisfied with the concept of renting a movie and watching it whenever I like. Now, I suddenly have to start keeping track of deadlines again. The thought of adding that extra bit of stress back into my life doesn’t really appeal to me, shiny new interface notwithstanding.

And while we are on the subject of interfaces, I am going to have to get on my soapbox again and complain about iTunes. Simply put, it does too much. Lets total it all up, shall we? Here is what we currently use iTunes for: managing songs, movies, podcasts, iPod games, purchasing songs, purchasing TV shows, purchasing movies, renting movies, and, in case you forgot, playing music. Please Apple, bolt a few more features onto it. I can still almost use it.

Getting back to the matter at hand, I like the idea behind what Apple is trying to do, but I find the rules for it far too restrictive. There just isn’t a good enough reason for me to forsake Netflix in favor of this service. For instance, if you use Netflix’s cheapest service you could rent two DVDs a month for $4.99. That means unless you absolutely need to see that movie right this second, it is cheaper for you to wait for your movies to slug their way through the mail. Netflix becomes an even better deal when you upgrade to one of their Unlimited plans. Assume you rent two new releases on DVD at a time, with unlimited returns for $13.99 a month. Now, I realize the service is very much limited by the mail and how fast you can actually watch these movies, but let us assume a reasonable number for the sake of argument: two new movies each week for a month. That is about eight movies a month for $13.99. That works out to be about $1.75 a movie for Netflix compared with $3.99 a movie for Apple. And of course this number will vary depending on how the mail runs, but if anything I think I’m underestimating how fast the turnaround is for Netflix. Either way, you can see that it is two to three times more expensive to rent from Apple than it is from Netflix. And, Netflix offers you no penalties or restrictions on how you can watch your movies.

So, overall I appreciate what Apple is trying to accomplish. However, at these prices and with these restrictions, I can’t realistically see myself using this service anytime soon. Maybe if they adopt a Netflix-like model I will start using it then. But until something major changes, I won’t be using iTunes Movie Rentals.


  • I agree with you on the timing issue. 24 hours is just too short. I saw a comment elsewhere about new parents, who only have about 1 hour time segment free most evenings between putting the baby to bed and crashing into bed themselves. So they just can’t manage to watch a whole movie in one night. In other cases, you might start to watch and get interrupted and just not be able to get back to it within 24 hours.

    Another major difference between Netflix and Apple rentals is that with Netflix you get the extras on the disc, which many of us like to watch. Often I’ll rent a DVD even after seeing the film in the theater, just to see the extras. I’m assuming there are no extras with the iTunes rentals?

    lesliet had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 2
  • “Here is what we currently use iTunes for: managing songs, movies, podcasts, iPod games, purchasing songs, purchasing TV shows, purchasing movies, renting movies, and, in case you forgot, playing music.”

    Oh… don’t forget: activate iPhone, sync iPhone, anything iPhone-related grin

    ThomasHan had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 3
  • The Netflix queue is my favorite feature. iTunes needs something like that. Further, Apple needs to break out the video business into a separate application or move it to the web, or at least open it up to developers (a la Netflix Freak).

    Rick Roberts had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 1
  • I agree with most of what is said about the DRM and the way Netflix rental model works.
    However what is not mentioned in this article is that OSX has yet to have been supported by Netflix, so this requires you to run parallels/vm ware or boot camp to run a flavor of windows to then be able to watch the Netflix downloadable rentals.  Once Netflixs can give me downloadable rentals natively on OS X then I think Apple will then start changing the rules on how long rentals last.

    opg4759 had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 1
  • I read in another forum that even though you only have 24 hours to start an iTunes movie rental, you can delay finishing the movie as long as you don’t quit it.  Just pause it the first evening after you’ve only viewed the first hour, then return the second evening to finish it.  If you left the movie paused, the delete clock can’t act.

    Dave Marsh had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 44
  • Of course I meant the 24 hour clock begins when you start the movie, not that you have to start viewing the movie in the first 24 hours.

    Dave Marsh had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 44
  • It is unfortunate for Netflix that Apple has now entered its territory - the right way.

    Now, in its full DVD, and even full-HD capabilities will trounce the mighty Netflix (and Blockbusters, just as well).

    Those two are competing with a narrow “tunnel” vision. They think offering downloadable movies in parallel with their physical entities will make this internet-distributed movies all the craze.

    I BEG TO DIFFER. Apple’s biz model is to offer the same delicious pie as those has-beens, with a dash of the OPEN medium we call the Internet.

    Surely, now that iTunes has been integrated (as I had proposed long ago back with the iTV concept), it is a matter of time until Safari, Mail, and other Apple iApps make it to the diminutive device.

    Can you guys imagine how the podcasting feature will grow to become a monster medium? We haven’t yet experienced its full potential. Just a few smearing of HD here and there is not what I am talking about. They are good but will get even better.

    Imagine all the HD channels that will surely sprout for the ÓTV and ALL will be FREE!

    The broadcast networks will be too stupid to ignore such massive audience and will then offer podcast editions of their terrestrial broadcasts with ads, I suppose, but they will be there.

    In such apocalyptic scenario, will Netflix, Blockbusters, and the other “living room” contenders still exist? Perhaps. But not the giants they are today.

    Let ÓTV’s internet broadcast revolution begin…

    Robomac had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Pretty well agree with your thoughts on limitations.

    Just a question - I’ve heard comments that if you try to rent a LOT from Netflix (on their unlimited plan), that Netflix starts slowing you down. Not sure if it’s true but sounds plausible. I assume 2 new movies a week is fine long term, eh?

    Greg Alexander had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 228
  • Apple, you don’t have to worry yet.  If Netflix continues along the line of some of the changes they have been making to their user experience, lately, then people will be moving to non-Netflix pastures soon enough.

    Recently, I looking into the declining Netflix product experience and you can read it here…


    Jeremy Horn
    The Product Guy

    theproductguy had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 1
  • As for those doubters as to the “quality” of the movie streams from iTunes Rentals, and how such slow DSL/cable connections will siphon such humongous-sized files.

    First off, the ÓTV is capable of 1280x720 HD or 720p from ÓTV’s spec page.. I will focus on H264 here for that will be the dominant format.

    My own research on streaming using H264 shows that a 4mbps bitrate is capable of supporting up to 1080p. Now, that bitrate+1mbps (5mbps) is being used by the ÓTV;as the basis for 720p HD movies.

    That bitrate is excellent for a screen up to 50” range. Most folks have fewer screen real estates anyway so the bitrate question should never be asked. Then again, purists will always prefer uncompressed files streamed to them. For those folks, the truth is even if you buy Blu-Ray or HD-DVDs, they are compressed and bitrate-limited just the same.

    Now, to the questions of how a DSL or cable connections support such massive files. First, have you heard it is “streamed” to you and not downloaded like a flat file would be. If you begin to download and decide not to watch until later, the movie is “cached” onto the hard drive not as a regular file but just as any cached file would - temporary.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of RTP/RTSP multicast protocol? Go to Wikipedia to learn about it if not.

    Quicktime, which iTunes uses as its foundation, has been the biggest proponent of RTP & RTSP streaming protocols since I can remember. It has been tested and worked on for all these years. It isn’t new nor any more exciting as before. It only taken this time for the populace to discover the promise of Quicktime Streaming, that’s all.

    So, how fast then? Well, most of us have >5Mbps internet connections, right? Some lucky FiOS and U-Verse customers are now bragging of >10 and >20Mbps downstream capabilities. Wow! For comparative differences, my streaming research used symmetrical >400Mbps streams. <doze…>

    If most folks have 5Mbps downstream, then your capacity for HD 720p is: ((5Mbps bitrate*60 seconds * 120 minutes)/5 Mbps DSL/cable)/60 mins/hr and you come up with 120 minutes of download time. That is exactly how long the movies are. If one has a 10Mbps connection or faster then the streaming time is halved, and so on.

    So, the gigantor “files” streamed and buffered by the ÓTV is a non-issue if you happen to have a faster DSL/cable hookup which most of us posters here have anyway. That is the reason for the 30day downloading and 24hr watching option for those folks not on the bleeding edge.

    Sure sounds fair and non-discriminatory to me. Good job, Apple! Well done…

    Robomac had this to say on Jan 28, 2008 Posts: 846
  • So, how fast then? Well, most of us have >5Mbps internet connections, right?


    SterlingNorth had this to say on Jan 29, 2008 Posts: 121
  • (and that’s me believing the ITIF average number of 4.8 as opposed to the CWA’s 1.9… both would mean that most consumers hardly get +5Mbit broadband)

    SterlingNorth had this to say on Jan 29, 2008 Posts: 121
  • Thanks for clarifying, Sterling. I supposed that was in Steve’s mindset for having a 30-day download window for those folks having 1Mbps or less. I am aware some folks still do NetZero and AOL dialups, etc. It is amazing people still rationalize their Cost*Time=$$ equation with dialup. People, Time is $$$ and move on to DSL, at least. It isn’t that much more plus you’ll be having a more rewarding experience - trust me.

    Just to have my point across point your browser to SpeedTest and I believe that more than that CWA or the ITIF average results since SpeedTest is “dynamic” meaning that you the users themselves “PINGed” the servers not some arbitrary random statistics that most surveys use.

    Robomac had this to say on Jan 29, 2008 Posts: 846
  • Not to sound like I’m picking nits. But, you make an unfair comparison above regarding Netflix’s movie selection. Netflix doesn’t have “90,000” movies available via download. It has 6,000. It says so right on their website. Now granted 6,000 is greater than 1,000. But, I imagine Apple will get to 6,000 relatively quickly.

    I do agree though that the all you can eat aspect of Netflix’s download movie package is very attractive. If Netflix ever makes their movie package Mac-friendly, there will be some real competition.

    fdlozano had this to say on Jan 29, 2008 Posts: 1
  • It seems the author is really comparing movie downloads/streaming to dvds, which is like comparing apples to oranges, or perhaps even better, oranges to orange juice:  same content, different packages.  How about a comparison between AppleTV and on-demand.

    broma had this to say on Jan 30, 2008 Posts: 1
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