A Closed Netflix Hurts Everyone

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Here at “The Powerbase“, we usually report on software, hardware, or services which are open source. That’s sort of the whole point of this little thing we do. Someone browsing through our site could get the impression that the world is overflowing with open source projects, and everyone and everything is sharing data.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the case. While there is no question that open source has moved from niche to mainstream, there are still some big players who can’t seem to get their act together.

Despite some heavy internal use of open source software, and a decent effort to share some of those projects, Netflix is unfortunately a service which seems hell-bent on keeping itself as closed up as possible; which only serves to alienate their paying customers.

Netflix’s Silverlight Lining

Those who dare to use an operating system not developed by Microsoft or Apple are already well accustomed to Netflix’s reluctance to embrace the free software customer. Despite heavy community demand for years, Netflix has still failed to bring their service to generic Linux systems, let alone BSD or any of the other alternative operating systems.

The technical reasoning for this is pretty simple, Netflix chose to deploy their streaming video service (at least, when accessed via the web) with Silverlight, essentially Microsoft’s alternative to Adobe Flash. Silverlight included the DRM mechanisms necessary to protect the streaming content Netflix offered, but at the time only supported (obviously) Microsoft Windows. Eventually, a Mac OS version of Silverlight was released, but nothing official exists for any other platforms.

There was some promise for users of Linux and BSD though the Moonlight project, which aimed to deliver a free and open source alternative to Silverlight. Microsoft even helped with the development of Moonlight early on, but stopped short of licensing the appropriate DRM software which would have allowed Silverlight to play DRM-encumbered content like what Netflix streams.

As Netflix is far and away the most popular service using Silverlight, the fact that Moonlight couldn’t support it meant there was very little practical use for it. After 2 years of development, Silverlight adoption rate still remained abysmally low on the web, and with no possiblity of supporting Netflix in the future, the developers of Moonlight decided to end the project.

This may have been the first, but possibly not the last, free and open source project Netflix managed to indirectly kill.

Old Excuses Die Hard

Now that even Microsoft is rumored to have abandoned Silverlight, and Netflix has been delivering HTML5 powered versions of its streaming technology on game consoles and mobile devices, why are we still without Linux and BSD players?

According to Netflix, the problem is that there is no standard structure for supporting DRM video on free software operating systems. While Netflix has been able to deliver their content on many Linux-powered devices (such as the Sony Dash, Google Chromebooks, and even Android), it has only been able to do so because those systems are relatively closed off to the consumer.

The Sony Dash may be running Linux under the hood, but good luck taking a peek at it. The Netflix plugin for Chrome OS devices won’t work if the device is in “Developer Mode” (a mode where the user can access the underlying Linux system).

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that unless HTML5 gets proper support for DRM video playback, we’re unlikely to see Netflix arrive on any fully open operating system. Of course some sites deliver paid video content via Flash (such as Hulu and HBO GO), but as Flash is also on death’s door for alternative operating systems, that’s not much of a help.

Constricting API

At this point, most free software users have gotten used to the idea that they will simply never be able to stream the Netflix content they pay for on their desktops and laptops. This isn’t fair, but it doesn’t seem like there is much of a choice in the matter. But at least Netflix-capable devices are so ubiquitous that this isn’t too much of a concern. After all, most people want to play Netflix on their TV, and there are a multitude of game consoles, set top boxes, and even TVs themselves, that include Netflix playback.

Unfortunately, these devices (and indeed, the Netflix site itself) leave something to be desired in terms of features and user interface. Want to see if you’ve ever watched a title before? Want to see the exact date it will no longer be available for streaming? These pieces of information are not easily obtainable through the official site and player applications, but are exposed to third party application developers through a publicly documented API.

That is, they were available through this API. As of September 15th, Netflix turned off many of the API functions which other sites and applications were using to deliver a more detailed and customizable overview of the Netflix collection.

Third party applications are no longer able to access the following information:

  • DVDs shipped
  • DVDs returned
  • DVDs at home
  • Instant titles watched
  • Instant title watched progress
  • Instant title expiration beyond 2 weeks

Sorting titles by expiration in NetQ

Removing these API functions either limit, or completely cripple, certain third party applications. Some of these applications have paying customers who will demand an answer from their individual developers, who can do nothing but try and explain that Netflix is no longer allowing them to have access to this information.

Applications like NetQ, a $0.99 Android application that allows you to manage your Netflix queues with incredible flexibility. NetQ could do things like re-organize your Instant queue by expiration date, so even if the device you were playing Netflix on had no concept of sorting or expiration dates, you could make it show the titles expiring the soonest first on the list by shifting their position in the overall queue. NetQ could also deliver interesting data like how long you have spent watching Instant titles, or show what titles you watched on any given date going back as long as you’ve had Netflix.

With these API changes, NetQ will have to lose or limit some of these features. Features which paying customers requested and have come to expect. So not only is the customer hurt by limiting how they can interact with the service, but so are the developers who did nothing more than access the API Netflix made available to them.

Limited Alternatives

Throughout its history, Netflix has made it pretty clear that their intention is to keep their customers on a very short leash. It would be nice to say that there was a competitor out there that had as much content available for streaming, offered as many playback options, and delivered their videos in a DRM-free format, but sadly there just isn’t one. While Netflix is obviously not without peers in the streaming video arena, they are so far out ahead that it’s hard to even name a clear runner-up.

Until such time as another streaming content provider appears with a comparable library and ability to watch said library on a reasonable selection of devices, Netflix customers who value their freedom are in an uncomfortable position. Your options are, essentially, deal with the walled garden of Netflix, or deal with the severely limited competition.

But jumping ship is likely the only way to get anyone at Netflix to reconsider their current course. After the vicious backlash over the ill conceived spinning off of their DVD by mail service, Netflix quickly cancelled their plans and kept Instant and DVD rentals together. Perhaps a vocal enough protest over their increasingly closed ecosystem will manage to pry their grip off the consumer’s neck.

One thing is for sure, the future of entertainment is online streaming. If we allow a company to keep such a tight lid on their service this early in the game, it will be setting a dangerous precedent for other providers down the road. The Internet itself was built on open standards, so it’s only right that an entertainment network that is built on top of the Internet follow the same example.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • tracyanne

    there is one other way. Simply don’t use the service.

    • http://profiles.google.com/deanhowell2 Dean Howell

      That is the best way to protest something…

  • Steve Starr

    I canceled both my Netflix services and my Amazon Prime accounts due to netflix not working on linux and Amazon Prime being broken on my linux system since they updated there player.

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  • flyboydale54

    I was thinking of joining Netflix until I read this article. I think I will leave Netflix alone now. I do not really watch that much TV anymore. Way too many commercials. Seems like on a 3 hour show, I bet I spend 1 hour watching commercials. I have found more enjoyable things to do with my time than watch worthless TV. In the time accumulated in a week watching commercials, I can almost build a new Radio Controlled Model Airplane from a Kit. Then when I go out to fly it at the local model airplane club field, I do not have to watch commercials, I can just have fun watching others as well as myself fly their models. I find it far more entertaining.

  • scribe

    Think that is bad, try changing plans from streaming back to the old dvd-by-mail only… after you cancel streaming, dvd-by-mail option is removed completely. you can not sign up a netflix accout without streaming include. I had to call up tech support to manually edit my service package and the tech actually laughed at my problem because its that common. Netflix website is medieval at best.

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