Netflix CEO Reed Hastings took to the conference stage tonight for the closing keynote on day one of Mobile World Congress. In fact, strictly speaking, it was less a keynote, more a fireside chat, with Hastings gently quizzed by BBC reporter and presenter, Francine Stock.
It never looked likely to be as lively as a session with Zuckerberg or Schmidt, and so it proved, but in the course of the chat, Hastings revealed that Netflix is working to improve the quality of its content on mobile, while at the same time reducing the bandwidth needed to deliver it. Recalling the early days of the dial-up internet he said: “Now that seems like such a relic. That’s what we want to make buffering, where you start to watch a video and it buffers like you get at MWC a lot...We are investing heavily on many levels…so that the experience on mobile and laptop and the TV is just instant.”
On bandwidth, he said: “We have invested in video codecs that deliver incredible picture quality on a 5-inch screen at half a megabit. We are down to 300 kilobits in some cases and we hope to get to 200 kilobits so we are getting very efficient at using operators’ bandwidth efficiently.” Later, he added: “Five or 10 years from now, the quality of Netflix on all of our devices will be just incredible. We don’t know what it will look like, but what we know is the internet allows fantastic new experiences to be created.”
But while Netflix knows that a lot of its content is consumed on mobile, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Hastings conceded that programmes are not shot with mobile in mind. “We really focus on incredible stories, on characters that engage and storylines that are meaningful or funny, and less on the screen size…we don’t design for mobile,” he said. “We are focused on stories that you want to watch on any screen, including mobile.”
The Netflix chief also predicted that traditional TV networks would start to adopt the Netflix model of making an entire series available to watch instantly, rather than rolling it out week by week. He said: “Everybody loves (binge viewing). It brings TV shows and movies back to the way they should have been. The original binge view was the novel…The internet has brought back binge viewing to human beings, and it is just a better way than watching a show every week and you are going to see most of the networks converting to binge viewing.”
Stock also asked Hastings about the trend for Netflix viewers to consume its content online, as opposed to DVD, where it started out. He said a decision was taken to build Netflix on DVD "and eventually the internet would catch up with the postal service and surpass it”. This process he noted, took 10 years, with Netflix streaming its first programme in 2007. It was another three years after that before the volume of content consumed via streams overtook that consumed on DVD.
Asked about the future, Hastings said the company’s approach was not to try to predict it, but to adapt to whatever trends emerge. “What’s amazing about technology is that it’s very hard to predict,” he said. “If you started 10, 20, 30 years ago, few people would predict what’s happening today, so we try to learn and adapt rather than predict what’s going to happen, so if virtual reality takes off, we’ll adapt to that.”