Netflix, misplaced rage and change.

Are you really that mad about Netflix? Really?


Are you going to cancel your account and go use another (read: barely existent) service instead in a huff? I bet you don’t. [Oh yes, I WILL] No, seriously, you probably won’t. In fact, I bet you’re upset primarily because you don’t know what else to do, and that’s ok, but let’s keep things in perspective. I don’t want to disregard anyone’s feelings, but there’s also a bigger picture here.

First of all, I completely understand that some people need to keep both a DVD plan and a streaming plan. Perhaps you have kids and you need those DVD-only movies. Perhaps you just need to see the latest and greatest as soon as it comes out. I get it. Really, I do. And Netflix gets it, which is why it’s making terrible decisions on spinning off and rebranding its services.

See what I did there? All in one fell swoop, I made everyone feel better about everything. But seriously, that name is horrible, and we all know it, and making people go to two different websites to do what they previously did nicely on one is terrible, horrible UX and someone should be punished severely for it.

But Netflix doesn’t care. Sure, Reed wrote us all that nice letter, but realistically, the company is making a huge play here, and we all need to understand what it entails. It’s straddling two very different distribution strategies; one with a viable future, and one that will eventually (possibly sooner than you think right now) die out. Hollywood’s asinine licensing agreements are not making anything any easier. To its credit, Netflix has been able to do what very few others to date have been able to: take insanely valuable content and create a business around it that didn’t involve the massive overhead a previous venture would have entailed. Think about it – Netflix wasn’t giving away DVD players to get into homes – it was cutting deals with hardware manufacturers to put streaming in as many places as possible. The infrastructure is the hard part, and it pulled a trojan horse maneuver on a litany of devices while everyone just watched.

But this isn’t meant to be a third-party apology for Netflix’s insensitive choices as of late. That pricing thing was handled poorly, as Hastings admitted, and Qwikster, well, let’s just say that if you want to guarantee a product’s demise, name it like a late 90s sitcom neighbor.

The bottom line is that Netflix is doing something that takes balls. Balls that other companies don’t have because they’re hedging bets and burning money on dying ideas. These are Apple balls. It’s the kind of attitude that understands and accepts that bridges will be burned, but sees a bigger picture that analysts and the immediate outcry will miss. I canceled my DVD plan months ago, after watching a single disc sit unwatched next to the TV for over a year. Am I completely satisfied with the streaming plan? Hell no, but it’s good enough for me now, and it can be safely assumed that given its trajectory, it will continue to get better. In fact, my biggest gripe with the streaming service has nothing to do with Netflix at all – it’s that I can queue up movies one day, and then since some labyrinthine license agreement has run its course, with no notice to me, those movies vanish, possibly never to return to that format.

So if you’re really going to get good and mad, make sure you’re leveling those barrels at the people who deserve your fury. Hollywood is afraid of change, and instead of embracing it and working to make a better distribution system with a company like Netflix who so obviously gets it, they’re including digital copies of movies with expiration dates with plastic discs in stores. They’re making sure you have a hard time enjoying what you’re more than happy to pay for by punishing you for waiting too long to watch the things you want to watch. That’s worth being pissed off about.

A story about technology.

Last weekend, like much of the east coast of the US, we found ourselves lying in the path of Hurricane Irene as it made its way northward. Our basement flooded last February, and although we’d replaced the faulty sump pump responsible for that first unpleasant experience, sump pumps need power to operate, and I was convinced we would lose power at some point during the storm. So much so, in fact, that I paced until about 2am, thinking of how I could possibly discover it, should it occur while I grabbed whatever little sleep I’d be getting that night. By my estimates, based on how quickly the pit in our basement floor was filling on a regular basis, I had about 15 minutes without power before water started making its way across the floor.

I realized I needed to know as soon as (or as close to the moment as possible when) the power went off. I walked around the house, looking for things that would beep if the power was cut to them, but I could find nothing. I settled on a rather sketchy plan: I would sleep in the basement, close to the pump, where our FiOS power supply was located. This has a battery backup attached to it, and I assumed (as with many UPSs) it would beep if activated. Additionally, I would leave a lamp on, and set my iPhone to wake me every 30 minutes, so I could mitigate whatever situation might be unfolding by waking and surveying the room for the light. A lousy plan, but it was all I had left in me at that point.

About seven minutes into The PlanĀ®, I realized I was not going to be getting any sleep, primarily because I would not be able to relax enough to make it restful. As a last resort, I turned to the App Store. In it, I found an app simply called Blackout Alarm. You turn the app on, plug your iPhone in, and if at any point your phone detects that it’s running off of the battery, it blares an alarm. That’s it! I plugged the phone in, turned it on and tested it a few times by pulling the plug out of the dock. Eureka! Something so simple, yet so perfectly tailored to my exact need at that exact moment, and more importantly, singularly providing me a sense of comfort that I didn’t expect to get at all that night.

And that leads me, finally, to my point: a few years ago, this would not have been possible at all. I’ve been a smartphone user since 2004. The ease and ubiquity of the App Store model, particularly on iOS, has been an inflection point for mobile software distribution. We all know all the stats, so I won’t be reiterating (or regurgitating) them here. Because what’s important in this example is not numbers, but the story. Had app distribution not been democratized so much, to the point where a single individual can afford to spend the time creating and distributing a highly-focused, exceedingly simple app to serve a purpose like this, we would miss out on these moments. Scoff at Apple all you like for its adherence to words like “magical” in marketing products, there’s something very special about the times you can actually use technology – with little to no effort – to demonstrably improve your life in the moment. That’s no small accomplishment.

We use a lot of tech every day, and many times we grumble and question why we bother with it as we wrestle with a failed OS update, a bricked phone, or any other of a litany of tiny problems. But there are also times like this, however few and far between, when the dreams of the past are realized, and the promise of what was to come at all those World Fairs and Epcot Center pavilions arrives in something as simple as a decent night of sleep. I know, the app isn’t curing diseases, but life is all about finding joy and meaning in the little things. And this little thing made a big difference, if only for a night. Hyperbole? Sure, I’ll give you that. But think about it. What is all this for if not to make our lives better?