Open Source

The Netflix Linux conjecture: How Netflix snubs the Linux community

Jack Wallen asks the powers that be at Netflix why they don't stream to Linux. If you are a true Linux fan, the answer will ruffle your feathers as much as it did Jack's.

Conjecture: A conjecture is a proposition that is unproven but appears correct and has not been disproved. If that statement confuses you (and it may if you're not a student of math), then you understand exactly how I felt during a discussion with Netflix' Steve Swasey (VP of Corporate Communications - aka "Spin Doctor"). Quite frankly, the man didn't spin the discussion in such a way to make Netflix anything but a tiny bit ignorant of the topic at hand.

Before I go any further, I should probably tell you what this is all about. Netflix has a feature that allows members to stream movies directly to their PCs. To accomplish this, they use Microsoft's Silverlight technology. Silverlight is basically a web-application framework that provides functions similar to that of Adobe Flash.

Now, with that out of the way, let me give you the gist of the conversation between myself and Mr. Swasey:

MEHello, I am a freelance writer for Techrepublic (CNET), Linux.com, and Ghacks.net and I get a LOT of readers asking why Netflix does not support Linux. I plan on doing an article on this very subject and was wondering if I could get your official statement on this very subject. SteveJack, Netflix wants to be ubiquitous on any screen you want to watch TV shows and movies on and we're working to get on as many platforms as we can.  However, Linux currently does not have a Microsoft Silverlight plug-in that's comparable with Netflix playback. Please let me know if you have other questions. MESteve, Have you looked into Moonlight yet? It is a collaboration between Novell and Microsoft. With this plugin, you are able to view Silverlight content on Linux. This works as a Firefox plugin and works quite well. I can even go to the Microsoft Silverlight site and view content with this plugin. With that being said, how can you not support this when Microsoft itself allows the streaming of their content using the Moonlight plugin? Thanks for your input on this. It will make a very widely read and anticipated article as there are a LOT of Linux users out there who feel they've been shunned with services like yours. STEVE: Jack, Moonlight is a partial Silverlight replacement but it does not include PlayReady DRM technology. ME: Steve, so really this doesn't come down to Linux and Silverlight, but DRM?  This surprises me. Since Apple, being one of the more paranoid companies on the planet, dropped DRM on their music, I assumed everyone would follow suit. I guess I was wrong in that assumption. One thing that I don't quite understand is that the Roku player uses a Linux OS. How is that possible that you can stream to that device and not to PCs? Why did you decide to go with Silverlight anyway?  Thank you for your time. I hope that some day you will drop the DRM constraints so everyone can enjoy your instant play feature. STEVE: Jack, DRM is critical and we won't do without it as we're serious about protecting the copyright of our studio partners' content. ME: I have to say the opinion of the general public of DRM is not very favorable. I've also noticed (on your forum) a number of Linux developers calling out to say they would gladly work with getting a DRM version of Moonlight available. And since Moonlight works very well with any content streamed to Silverlight - it seems like a win-win situation. Neflix would win over a multitude of possible users and would only have to reach out to the Linux development community to create the underlying software (DRM'd Moonlight).  I will also say that I have been a mouthpiece of the open source community for over twelve years. I know what they went through with Apple and the now-offered DRM-free music on iTunes. Ubuntu now has the Ubuntu One Music Store and has access to 7digital DRM-free music. Authors can publish their written work to Amazon DRM-free. I realize that the RIAA is a bastard of an organization and I am sure your hands are tied. Anyone in this country that knows of how the RIAA works, and has a modicum of ethics, wouldn't send a penny there way. I would bet your hands are tied with production studios as well. Be that as it may, if you were to reach out to the open source community and say "If you can deliver Netflix a version of Moonlight that will work with DRM, we will offer our services to your operating system", you would have it done in a surprisingly fast time. STEVE: Jack, I appreciate your passion around this subject.  And there are many engineers at Netflix who would enjoy the debate with you.  However, we need to stay focused on the platforms we're supporting, knowing we're not everything for everybody all the time.

And that was that. A Netflix representative made it very clear, and official, that they do not plan on supporting any other technology than Microsoft and Intel-based OS X computers. Why? Not because of Silverlight (which was the original claim), but because of DRM. I made it very clear in one of my replies that there have been Linux developers who have informed Netflix they would be willing to create a DRM-enabled version of Moonlight for Netflix in order to get Instant Watch capabilities on Linux...but Netflix doesn't care about that. They don't even care that they wouldn't have to pay a single penny to get this developed.

But what should the Linux community do about this? Is this an issue they should just turn a blind eye to? Should they all boycott Netflix? I have a better idea. Ubuntu has proven they can offer nearly the same product as Apple with the Ubuntu One Music store. Why can't they take this to 11 and offer streaming (or purchasable) movies along side of the music? And here's a good idea - don't offer it to any other platform. Do something better than what Windows and OS X has and keep it to ourselves.

I don't know what the true solution is, or if there even is a solution. But I do know this is so typical of companies to basically ignore a HUGE cross section of the worlds desktop users (and don't anyone bother to say that Linux is a vast minority because it's not..not when you consider outside the boundaries of the United States).

From my perspective this makes Netflix not only look bad, but look ignorant. A VP says to me they can't stream to Linux because Linux doesn't have Silverlight. But when they get hit with the realization that there is a working replacement for Silverlight they change their tune to DRM...which in turn reminds me that the decision is probably not even Netflix decision to make, but the studios. And just like the RIAA seems to bully the entire market, the Motion Picture Industry is obviously doing the same thing.

Where do you stand on this? What should the Linux community do (if anything)?

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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