Netflix shows the world how not to treat your customers by dropping Profiles — Updated: Change of plans

Like many other Netflix customers, I received the “Important News Regarding Netflix Profiles” email this week stating that Netflix “will be eliminating Profiles, the feature that allowed you to set up separate DVD Queues under one account, effective September 1, 2008.” Upon reading it, the claim sounded so absurd that I assumed it was phishing/spam. Seriously.

Sadly, the news started showing up with quotes and claims that the statement may actually be true. “Netflix Eliminating Account Profiles” (on claims that “Netflix spokesperson Steve Swasey said that the decision to eliminate Profiles is a ‘final decision.’

Here’s the kicker though; The now famous email ends with, “While it may be disappointing to see Profiles go away, this change will help us continue to improve the Netflix website for all our customers.” Really? How so?

For those not familiar with Netflix Profiles, the feature was somewhat unique. Instead of having a single persona per account, Netflix Profiles allowed a single account (ie., household) to setup multiple profiles (ie., husband, wife, kids, pets, etc.), so that each profile could manage their own rental queue. It also allowed the main account holder (ie. the parents) to review the other profile’s queue (ie., the kids) and set limitations, like whether the profiles were allowed to rent R-rated movies. The feature was amazingly helpful in eliminating arguments about who controlled the rental queue.

Removing features from a product can be a tough decision for any Product Manager. Features that are rarely used are easy to toss aside; But (market differentiating) features that customers love should never be thrown out without helping the customers replace or replicate the same benefit in another manner. In this case, Netflix dropped a much-loved feature, but left their customers without an alternative (other then opening more Netflix accounts, which isn’t a likely reaction for irritated customers.)

For more:

[Update: 2008-06-30] Complaining works! Netflix just announced that they are keeping Profiles:

You spoke, and we listened. We are keeping Profiles. Thank you for all the calls and emails telling us how important Profiles are.

We are sorry for any inconvenience we may have caused. We hope the next time you hear from us we will delight, and not disappoint, you.

Looking across the pond for new media innovation

I just watched the BBC demo from mix06. Stunning. But while watching it, it occurred to me that the BBC’s unique position of being publicly funded is a huge advantage for adopting new media technology, and that advertising-funded media in the States seems to be battling against these same advancements.

Since UK citizens fund the BBC (at least, that’s my simplified interpretation), it is in the BBC’s interest to make their content easily available to all (paying) citizens. In other words, DVR’s, IPTV, and video iPod’s can be embraced rather then feared. Additionally, since their funding is somewhat fixed and consistent (ie., no spiky ad revenue), it is also in the BBC’s interest to reduce content distribution costs where possible to free up money for new content creation (ie., P2P file sharing amongst their customers is a good thing since it cuts the BBC’s direct bandwidth costs.)

Where it gets particularly interesting though, is that the BBC should be in no way threatened by the idea that their viewers will be copying, re-mixing, fast-forwarding, place-shifting, and sharing the content. With no need to track ad impressions, there’s no dreaded “30-second-skip” attacking legacy business models. Surly they still need to track customer interest to know which shows to fund, but that seems a lot easier then developing content based on how lucrative a viewing audience is for advertisers.

What’s great about this situation is how well it demonstrates the connection between business models and the ability to embrace change and adopt to consumer needs. In the States, we are at risk of legislation making it illegal to watch movies on one’s computer and even more illegal to share a video with a friend. In the UK, IPTV and P2P networks might just save the country money.

“Embracing the Mobile Hacker Ethic”

Gizmodo has a piece today titled “Embracing the Mobile Hacker Ethic” that covers Python for Series 60, Macromedia Flash Lite, and the Maemo Platform as technologies that empower individual developers to create their own mobile applications. The article also happens to feature a few quotes by me :-)

“If people are going to innovate, they need to feel comfortable rapidly proofing new ideas and throwing away code when something doesn’t work,” Smartt says. “That’s less likely to happen if application development takes months. With Python for Series 60, it should be possible to produce a simple proof-of-concept application in an afternoon.”

Obviously that’s taking a narrow view on what “innovation” can mean, but it builds on my recent post: “Extreme Programming vs. Interaction Design” where I tried to make a point that high-quality design and user experiences come from iteration and trial-and-error, and the more places that an “iterative culture” can be adopted in product development, the better the products will be.

Thanks Gizmodo (and Carlo) for helping to promote the Python for Series 60 project!

Free goes a long way

I read through some of the XBox 360 announcements last week, and the one bit that really caught my attention was that all XBox 360 owners will get free weekend access to XBox Live. That’s a killer feature. Microsoft’s online strategy has dominated Sony’s (even if Sony has sold more hardware) and Sony will have to announce some very serious, well thought-out plans if they want to compete in the online space with the PS3. I’m generally not a Microsoft fan, nor do I own an XBox, but I certainly plan on picking up one of these new units when they’re released.

The Xbox Live online experience is stellar. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the main one’s is that Microsoft “owns the login.” All games must authenticate users through the same system, which leads to a consistent user-experience. Members have one bill, one login, and one system to deal with. It also means that Microsoft can build value-add services like social networking — something they are really pushing with the 360.

In contrast, the Playstation strategy requires game developers to manage their own online offering. Everything from the connection, to account management, to authentication, to billing, to game play must be built by each developer. This empowers a developer to build exactly the experience they want; But unless a shop can guarantee the needed volume of subscriptions to cover these costs, it just isn’t feasible to do. Because of this, smaller titles don’t get online features on the PS2. (Heck, most games don’t get online features on the PS2.)

The 360 is also being positioned as an always-online media center. It let’s owners chat online (voice and video), watch game and movie trailers, listen to music stored on your PC, etc. It’s a digital hub, to use a marketing term, that brings the internet and the media on your PC to your television. Building on that, it doesn’t take much of an imagination stretch to see online music and movie sales coming through the 360 either (although sadly, probably not via iTMS.)

There’s always a negative side though, and in this case I’m guessing that the media center functionality is designed to work only with Windows PC’s, locking out other OS’s and devices. It would make sense coming from Microsoft, but would be a poor choice if they really seek to “own” the home network experience. Furthermore, Microsoft’s history of poor security makes the thought of leaving the 360 powered-on and connected all the time a bit scary (and wasteful.)

I suppose we’ll have to wait until the holiday season to find out how well all of these ideas actually work. There have been a lot of services trying to bring the net to your television, but most of them have sucked. In the past, and likely still true for most consumers, the television did not offer the screen clarity needed to realistically read text. The technology was designed for moving pictures, and works very well for that. If you’ve ever tried designing TV-based software interfaces, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Characters bleed and twitch, and the resolution is terrible. But for video chat, movie trailers, and game previews, the television is perfect — and that’s where the 360 has an edge. Done right, the content will be interesting, and services designed specifically to run on this infrastructure have the potential to be huge.