3 reasons why Netflix could eventually offer downloads for offline access

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The conversation has become boring, but it refuses to go away: Will Netflix ever allow subscribers to download movies and TV shows for offline viewing? The video-streaming giant has never shied away from the question — it has previously stated in no uncertain terms that Netflix will never offer offline access. Instead, it will await ubiquitous Wi-Fi to become the norm.

However, during Netflix’s Q1 earnings yesterday, Re/Code’s Peter Kafka asked the question again… because why not. And somewhat surprisingly, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings answered the question with less of an emphatic “no,” and more of a “well, you never know.”

While it is far from confirmation that Netflix intends to allow its users to download movies and TV shows, it’s the first sign that it’s a real possibility. And it’s interesting to note the reasons for the company’s change in tact when confronted with this question.

Netflix went truly global this year when it landed in 130 new markets. But while you may have unlimited Wi-Fi or 3G/4G access ’round your neck of the woods, the same ain’t so in other markets. In short, Netflix may simply have to offer offline access if it’s to encourage some countries to embrace it. Moreover, Netflix has traditionally adopted a global approach to its service where it can exert control — so if it was to introduce offline access in India, for example, it would likely include the feature as standard in all markets.

But there are other reasons why Netflix could be having second thoughts about offering offline access.

Amazon launched its very own standalone video-streaming service yesterday, separate from its annual Prime subscription. While I believe that claims of this being a serious threat to Netflix are overstated, it’s there nonetheless — and it will be a whole dollar cheaper per month than Netflix. Also, Amazon introduced downloads to the mix for some TV shows and movies last year, and a bunch of other online video companies followed suit. Google recently did the same when it announced its very own video subscription service, YouTube Red.

The fact of the matter is, people travel places where there is either no Internet or it is prohibitively expensive, and that could cost Netflix some users as the competition heats up.

One of the reasons Netflix hasn’t offered downloads so far is the complexity it creates in terms of managing rights related to third-party content. There is a reason why Amazon’s offline mode is limited to some TV shows and movies — it’s not allowed to let people download videos and watch anywhere in the world. However, Netflix’s slate of original and exclusive programming is growing, spanning dramas, documentaries, movies, and more, and this gives Netflix a greater degree of flexibility about what it does. Just today, Netflix lifted the lid on its plans for HDR programming, and it’s no coincidence that it’s limited to its own arsenal of content, because it controls how the videos are created to begin with.

If offering offline access for third-party content really is a major stumbling block, Netflix could still offer a reasonable library of shows consisting entirely of its own creations. It’s not the perfect scenario, but it’s something.

Yes, the question may be boring but it keeps rearing its head for a reason. Netflix hasn’t confirmed anything yet, but its 81.5 million global subscribers will be crossing their fingers and toes that Netflix keeps an open mind on this subject.

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