Amazon announced Tuesday that it would offer its Prime members a way to download movies and TV shows to iOS and Android devices for offline viewing, making the service the first and only streaming portal to offer free downloads to its users.
While it's easy to write this off as a small blow in a much larger arms race, the addition of downloadable content is a win for both consumers and Amazon. The etailer's video content service has stayed in a steady second place behind Netflix for the past few years, and clearly it needed to do something to break out.
Necessity is the mother of all innovation (to paraphrase the old proverb), and innovation is what Amazon desperately needs to close the gap between itself and Netflix.
But is this move enough to overtake the streaming behemoth that is Netflix? Does Netflix need to respond in kind?
To answer those questions, we first have to look back at the storied clash between these two media titans.
A clash of streams
In truth, Amazon has always played second fiddle to Netflix. What's interesting, however, is that Netflix wasn't the first of the two services.
While Netflix was still wrapped up in the world of shipping physical media, Amazon launched an unassuming project called Amazon Unbox on September 7, 2006 as a platform to distribute digital content. It would take five years before the service started to look like what we're familiar with today (the service was rebranded to Amazon Prime Instant Video on February 22, 2011), but by virtue of being first, Amazon had a head start on what would become its biggest competitor.
Unfortunately for Amazon, it's not who can launch first but who can do it better. When Netflix did eventually shift from DVDs to digital content in 2007, it did so with reckless abandon. It charged a paltry sum for access to the still-growing library of movies and TV shows. When Netflix started to explode around 2013 thanks to shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Amazon had a hard time keeping pace.
Netflix now has 62 million paid subscribers, around double the amount of active Amazon Prime Instant Video users and about 20 million more members than Amazon Prime as a whole, according to USA Today (opens in new tab).
That leads us to today's announcement. By allowing users to download and keep content for free on their mobile devices, Amazon has once again done something before Netflix.
This means Amazon will have to fight tooth and nail with movie studios and TV networks to secure downloading rights to movies and TV shows and might not have many wins in the beginning. This opens the door for an even more consumer-friendly environment, and for us, that's great.
But what, if anything, does it mean for the larger battle that Amazon is fighting?
Unfortunately for Amazon, it likely means nothing for now.
One trump card, no matter how much attention it gets today, can't win a whole war. And because the disparity in number of users is so great between the services, there's little reason for Netflix to risk potential partnerships over downloading rights.
That's not to say Netflix won't eventually offer a comparable service. If Amazon's ploy proves successful in retaining users and gaining new ones, then Netflix will likely find a way respond with some free download option. But its content distribution formula has worked, and there's no reason, not yet anyway, for Netflix to mess with it.
And not to disparage Amazon's accomplishment, but doesn't the service have larger issues it should be addressing? Like providing more relevant content instead of relying on HBO shows from the early aughts as its only source of must-watch television. How about being the first service to stream new episodes of Fear the Walking Dead or locking down deals with FX for exclusive streaming rights to Archer?
Amazon has made headway in creating quality original programming, but only a small minority of its shows have captured the public's attention as much as Netflix.
I guess the comparison I'm struggling to draw here is that Amazon is indeed a power player in the world of streaming, but instead of improving on its core infrastructure by adding TV shows and movies that people care about and cause them to stick around, it's trying to develop the figurative equivalent of the atom bomb.
At the end of the day who cares if we can download content if all the content available isn't worth watching?