Netflix offers unlimited movie streaming in advance of Expo keynote

In what could be seen as a preemptive strike against Apple's rumored movie-rental service, Netflix Monday announced unlimited streaming of movies and TV episodes to the PCs of its more than 8 million subscribers.

According to the movie rental service, all subscribers on an unlimited rental plan can stream as many movies and TV episodes to their PCs as they want. Previously, streaming was handled as a metered service, with subscribers limited to monthly caps on online viewing based on their monthly membership fee. Netflix currently offers 6,000 movies and TV episodes for streaming to subscribers; unlimited rental plans with Netflix start at $8.99 a month.

The Netflix streaming service is currently available only to Windows users. However, last August, the company promised via a post on its community blog that it planned to add Mac compatibility, most likely through Microsoft's Silverlight video plug-in.

Netflix's announcement comes on the eve of Steve Jobs' keynote at Macworld Expo. It's widely expected that Tuesday's keynote will include some announcement involving movie rentals via Apple's iTunes Store, which currently only offers downloads of feature-length movies.

Last month, reports began circulating that Apple and News Corp. reached a deal to offer Twentieth Century Fox movies for rent via iTunes. Besides Twentieth Century Fox, Apple is said to be holding similar talks about online movie rentals with Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount and Warner Bros.

"It's had to gauge whether its in response to something hasn't happened," said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at JupiterResearch, referring to Apple's unannounced foray into the movie rental business. "If Apple is getting into the movie rental business, it will be disruptive."

However, Gartenberg says the reason many of the online rental services have not been successful in the past is because such a service is usually tied to your PC. Without some way of getting a video to your TV, you are stuck watching it on your computer.

If Apple does announce a movie rental service, it will presumably work with existing Apple products, meaning the Apple TV, iPod and the Mac.

But will Netflix's move hurt any potential Apple sales? Gartenberg doesn't think so.

"At the end of the day if you're a Netflix customer, this is an added bonus, but it's not a reason to join Netflix," said Gartenberg. "It's an interesting concept, but it's not something that's going to take the world by storm."

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