Years of patience were rewarded in December when Netflix introduced a download option for its content on mobile applications. This is something Netflix customers have wanted since the company expanded beyond DVD delivery, and many people greeted the announcement with the closest thing to glee any of us saw in 2016.
The benefits seem obvious. Downloading videos means they won’t have to be streamed over wireless networks or watched in the confines of the home. But this simple change might actually influence how we purchase, use, and dispose of smartphones in 2017 and beyond. Netflix didn’t just vastly improve its service; it gave new opportunities to an almost ubiquitous category of devices.
Perhaps the biggest reaction to offline Netflix was excitement about being able to watch movies and TV shows while traveling. It’s no secret that in-flight wifi sucks, and even though many hotels offer complimentary internet access, it’s not usually something to write home about. Downloading some videos to watch during a vacation’s downtime is a perfect use of Netflix’s new feature.
This could make smartphones even more vital during travel. I personally felt silly buying an iTunes movie to watch on my phone, so I would have to load up my laptop for every trip. Being able to download the next episode of Stranger Things, however, makes a lot more sense. My laptop could stay in my backpack instead of being cradled on the all-too-flimsy tray built into airplane seats.
Travel also helps the other use-case many people were excited about when Netflix introduced this feature: using their smartphones as a digital pacifier. Kids go bananas over moving colors, happy songs, and technology. Netflix’s downloads allow parents to fill up their phones with all of those things without having to worry about blowing through data limits or using up their storage.
At least for now. Netflix often plays host to the toothpaste phenomenon where people become overwhelmed by having too many choices. The service’s library is vast, and even though only a portion of it is available to download, it can be hard to pick just a few things to save for later. Why not just download as much as humanly possible so you don’t have to worry about having limited options?
Netflix’s offline videos don’t take up a lot of space on a device. But it can add up quick — it wouldn’t be surprising if some people had to delete apps or photos to make room for Netflix videos. This could lead to one of the first changes by making storage space, which is currently a nice-to-have instead of a gotta-have-it upgrade, a hot commodity for people who didn’t used to care.
These downloads might also help reduce the sway notifications hold over us. Nobody wants a good chunk of their screen to be taken up by a text message right when something interesting happens on Westworld. Nor will they want to hand their phone over to their kid only to find out later that an important email from their boss received a bunch of infantile gobbledygook in response.
Finally, it will be interesting to see if Netflix starts to make videos specifically for phone screens. Holding them in landscape mode isn’t comfortable (and has the unfortunate side effect of letting everyone know you’re either watching a video or playing a game) but most videos are made to be viewed that way. Might we now see the first vertically-shot television show or full-length film?
It would make sense. We already hold our phones vertically for most tasks, and services like Snapchat have already popularized content made for the displays we’re using instead of abiding the rules of other devices. As more people download Netflix videos it will only make more sense to at least experiment with making sure smartphones are considered when creating new content.
That would also go a long way towards getting people to hold onto their old phones. Some people still have VHS or DVD — or both; you’ve gotta love those hybrids! — players. If they have a phone filled to the brim with their favorite shows, it’s not hard to imagine them holding onto that device and maybe even carrying it with them so their other phone can be used for more vital tasks.
That last change will probably take a while. But the others — using phones for travel or to pacify our kids, taking storage space into consideration, and disabling notifications — could happen right now. Netflix finally brought us offline videos, and while that might seem like a trivial thing, one should never underestimate the power binge-watching has over Netflix’s faithful supplicants.