Netflix in a Box

Netflix has just officially announced what has long been rumored: a set-top box that delivers movies on-demand to your television over a high-speed internet connection. Netflix already offers a streaming-video service through its website, but unless you know how to hook your computer up to your television, you’ve got to watch the movies on a computer screen. And even if you’ve got your computer hooked up, as I do, there’s no way to get DVD quality 5.1 sound, a key part of the home-movie experience.

Right now, there are only 6,000 movies in the collection, and a large number of those are B movies that I suspect almost no one will ever watch. But as the service expands to include most or even just a large portion of Netflix’s 90,000 disc offerings, this could become pretty amazing — especially if they can figure out how to offer films in HD (though a Wall Street Journal report on the device indicates the device, to be made by LG, will likely feature a dual HD/Blu-Ray drive, which suggests that it’s unlikely to do so initially).

If this works, this seems to me to be the holy grail of home video. Pay a small fee every month — perhaps $20 or $30 — and have immediate, unlimited access to every single movie in full high definition. No need to lug crates of DVDs from apartment to apartment. No need to wait for discs to arrive in the mail, or to haunt Amazon and looking for the best deals. Yes, we’d lose the pleasures of ownership, the joys of owning Criterion-produced DVD fetish items, but for the price of a purchased disc or two each month, anyone could have access to virtually any film or TV show. No more “run, don’t walk, to your nearest store;” instead we’d say, Turn on your TV, press a button, watch the show I’m raving about right now.

You could catch up on Lost or The Wire without ever leaving the house, spend a weekend boning up on your Antonioni without having to scour the local indie-movie store, set up alerts that tell you when the latest movies or TV shows hit the system. If done right, it could replace cable TV; you’d get your news from the internet, and all your non-timely programming could be distributed through the Netflix system. A sea of programming, always ready and waiting, always giving you exactly what you ask for, all contained in one little box.

Update: A friend writes to remind me that he got to test one of these things. Sort of. Apparently, the box they showed him was not functional. I imagine the experience went something like this:

Test Administrator: “Here’s a box.”
Friend: “OK. What does it do?”
Test Administrator: “Well, it does nothing. But we want you to pretend.”
Friend: “Why?”
Test Administrator: “For evaluative purposes.”
Friend: “But how can I evaluate something I haven’t seen?”
Test Administrator: “You’ve got it right there, though.”
Friend: “But it doesn’t work.”
Test Administrator: “Which is where we go back to saying ‘pretending.’”
Friend: “But why a box?”
Test Administrator: “You would prefer something round maybe? Like a beach ball?”
Friend: “Would the beach ball be functional?”
Test Administrator: “Is it possible to make a non-functional beach ball? Let’s see. One made of concrete, maybe.”
Friend: “But that wouldn’t be a beach ball.”
Test Administrator: “No.”
Friend: “But by functional, I mean, would it do the thing you asked me to evaluate?”
Test Administrator: “No. If we could make it do that, we would make the box do it. Not a beach ball.”
Friend: “But it would still work as a beach ball.”
Test Administrator: “Of course.”
Friend: “That’s comforting, I suppose.”
Test Administrator: “It is, isn’t it?”