Why the iPad's Netflix Streaming Matters

As a part of the heavy splattering of iPad news this week, we learn that Apple has approved an official Netflix app, which will allow subscribers to stream some movies and TV shows. This streaming technology isn't new to Netflix. You could stream some of its library on your computer through its website for some time now. Devices like Blu-ray players and gaming consoles have also began including applications that let you stream Netflix movies to your television. But this capability adds an important new dimension to the iPad.

For a device to best integrate into consumers' lives, it shouldn't cause a disruption to products or services they already enjoy. This can pose something of a problem for a creation like the iPad, which isn't quite a laptop and isn't quite a giant smart phone, but somewhere in between. It creates a new technological gadget category, which comes with lots of cool new capabilities. But a new species of device can also create headaches if it precludes users from taking advantage of what they already enjoy.

The iPod is an example of an innovation that integrates well with existing products and services. Apple provided music lovers a vast library to purchase tracks or albums for their iPod through the iTunes store, but it also allowed people to convert the CDs they already owned to play on the device. There was no negative disruption.

The iPad's large, pretty, high-resolution display makes video one of its biggest advantages over e-readers and smartphones. Yet, its lack of a DVD player creates a negative disruption. More tech savvy users who know how to rip DVDs into computer files can then upload them into iTunes, but there's no easy, automatic functionality like for putting your CDs on your iPod. So everyone else would need to purchase or rent digital copies of these movies from the iTunes store.

But the inclusion of a functional Netflix app provides more continuity. Now, Netflix subscribers will be able to stream some of its library on their iPad. This isn't a perfect fix, however, since not all Netflix films are available via Internet stream, but it helps. Obviously, this also doesn't fix the DVD-disruption problem, but it does help to make it feel a little less severe to anyone who subscribes to Netflix. At least now they can stream more movies that they already pay to rent at no additional charge.

One question still remains, however, as highlighted by PCWorld:

Also, as the Wi-Fi-only iPad will be available this weekend, it's uncertain whether you will be able to watch Netflix movies on the iPad over 3G (model arriving late April). This would depend on AT&T. It would also mean that the $15 250MB 3G plan for the iPad wouldn't be sufficient; an unlimited plan will cost $30.

I'm not entirely convinced streaming movies via 3G will be a particularly enjoyable experience for iPad users anyway, since it will likely be slow with poorer resolution than over Wi-Fi. But if there is a way for 3G to accommodate this streaming, then that would certainly add a great new dimension to the iPad. For the device to be truly mobile, it should try to minimize its reliance on Wi-Fi.

Of course, the move to create the application is also a smart one by Netflix. iPad users who aren't already subscribers might be interested in the service after learning they can stream unlimited videos straight to the device. The cheapest Netflix subscription that allows streaming is just $8.99 -- that's approximately the cost of just two to three iTunes movie rentals, though the Netflix streaming library is more limited.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.

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