Android and Netflix: a Gear Chat

Was reading through the articles on Netflix late arrival to Android and came across this post over on ZDnet.  The author’s headline sates that Netflix is not out for Android because of the dreaded platform fragmentation.  We had a gear chat about it, but first let’s include a quote from the official Netflix blog post:

We regard Android as an exciting technology that drives a range of great devices that our members could use to instantly watch TV shows and movies from Netflix. We are eager to launch on these devices and are disappointed that we haven’t been able to do so already. The hurdle has been the lack of a generic and complete platform security and content protection mechanism available for Android. The same security issues that have led to piracy concerns on the Android platform have made it difficult for us to secure a common Digital Rights Management (DRM) system on these devices. Setting aside the debate around the value of content protection and DRM, they are requirements we must fulfill in order to obtain content from major studios for our subscribers to enjoy. Although we don’t have a common platform security mechanism and DRM, we are able to work with individual handset manufacturers to add content protection to their devices. Unfortunately, this is a much slower approach and leads to a fragmented experience on Android, in which some handsets will have access to Netflix and others won’t. This clearly is not the preferred solution, and we regret the confusion it might create for consumers. However, we believe that providing the service for some Android device owners is better than denying it to everyone.

Joel McLaughlin

This doesn’t bring out fragmentation of Android itself.  It means that there isn’t an effective DRM solution on Android.  There’s no chip on board all of the phones that can restrict copies of software to a specific device.  They are worried about piracy of the Netflix app.

In my opinion, I believe him partially, but I think the bigger hurdle here is the fact that the technology that the streaming service is based on, Silverlight, isn’t available on Android or even Linux itself.  Silverlight itself has partial support on Linux via the Moonlight project, but Moonlight has the same problem: it doesn’t support the DRM that Netflix has to use because of their obligations to the studios.

I am excited to get this app on my phone even though I hate DRM with a passion.  I think it’s probably some thing I would use a lot if the performance is good.  Only time will tell if my beloved Droid 2 will be a device blessed with a Netflix client.  I was hoping it would be out before the end of the year, but it looks like I will have to wait until 2011.

Michael Anderson

First, the concern isn’t piracy of the Netflix App but of piracy of the content played through the Netflix app due to the lack of a unified DRM system.

Joel McLaughlin

My mistake…continue Michael.

Michael Anderson

DRM – at least in the PC gaming world I am most familiar with – is a combined hardware / software system generally, in which a software component has to be installed at a root level and accessed through an app while being separate from the app itself. It generally utilizes some form of hardware combination to use as a unique identifier.

The problems with Android are multifold here:
– Lack of underlying DRM infrastructure
– The whole root access thing.
– Disparate software versions
– Disparate hardware versions
– Missing features on various devices
– Wide array of performance capabilities.

In short, Android today is already badly fragmented – and more and more we are seeing that regardless of a couple of cute tweets by Google and Tweetdeck, it is a HUGE issue.

Joel McLaughlin

Found something more than a few tweets about this.  Android fragmentation isn’t as bad as everyone blows it up to be by any means.  This is mostly a developer issue.

Francis Scardino

DRM is the main hurdle that Netflix is facing. I like to categorize DRM almost as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) as it pertains the to media and entertainment world. DRM is not a new topic of discussion and has been the root cause of fueling the RIAA with all of their legal battles and fines. The intellectual property holder which in this case would be the movie studio or propery rights owner makes Netflix responsible for protecting their content since they are the medium at which it is provided to the consumer. I personally hate DRM and find it totally annoying at times, but I guess it is necessary to keep people from openly sharing digital content online.

Android itself poses challenges to developers also. Sure, I agree there is fragmentation between handsets/carriers, but I think that in itself does not cause as much trouble as DRM does for this application. I can’t say from first hand knowledge though because I am not an app developer. But IMO fragmentation is highly overrated as such a big problem. Most of the time the complaints are about a few popular apps here and there that wont work with a few handsets or carriers. I choose fragmentation over the simple fact that with Android I have the freedom of choice with my handset and carrier.

As of right now, Android has no common security solution that can be easily integrated into any service. Although I think security will be common between devices soon enough with help of specific hardware and common software, but there simply is nothing yet to make this content protected. I vote security, DRM, and the media industry for the Netflix delays. Android popularity has increased exponentially over the past year. Since the beginning of the “Superphone” outbreak, more and more software developers and companies have been putting more time, money, and effort into Android applications and development. I think the future has a more unified Android structure in it, but for now we feel the struggles of it’s infancy.

Joel McLaughlin

Totally agree on this point.  DRM is the prime issue at hand with Netflix.  The content providers are scared of piracy.  While I don’t think it would be a huge risk, but it is what it is.  Netflix licensee’s demand the DRM.

Netflix will eek out to each device as they get them ready.  I, for one, can’t wait.  Hopefully Netflix won’t kill mobile platforms altogether.


About the Author

Joel McLaughlin
Joel is a consultant in the IT field and is located in Columbus, OH. While he loves Linux and tends to use it more than anything else, he will stoop to running closed source if it is the best tool for the job. His techno passions are Linux, Android, netbooks, GPS, podcasting and Amateur Radio.