Written by Internet, TV

Battle of the Streaming Services

This morning, Amazon UK announced a shake-up of its streaming offering, hitherto called LoveFilm. From next week, the service gets rebranded as Amazon “Prime Instant Video”, but perhaps more importantly, it gets rolled into the regular Amazon Prime offering.

So far, so good, unless you were attached to the LoveFilm name.

However there are price increases around the corner. Although it doesn’t say it anywhere I can see particuarly obviously on the Amazon website (indeed, I can’t see any press releases on the Amazon UK website post 2012!), the cost of Amazon Prime will jump from £49 to £79 for users. Anyone already on the £49 deal, or who joins before the end of the month, continues at the current price until the end of their 12 months. But the price is jumping up to that higher level with renewals or new starters after that point.

I’ve been using Amazon Prime since 2007, and it has undoubtedly made me use Amazon for many more purchases than I would have otherwise. The overall reliability of their next day offering, and the fact that I can use it easily for gifts, means that it’s been of immense value. I have to weigh that, of course, against Amazon’s avoidance of tax, the effect it has had on record, DVD and bookshops on the high street, and their reported working conditions. I try to use bricks and mortar bookshops as much as Amazon for this very reason.

When Amazon US started bundling streaming video in the US and offering it to Prime customers there, I wondered when we in the UK would get it.

Of course it was different market situation there to here. In the US, Amazon was the upstart fighting against the dominant Netflix. In the UK, Amazon had bought the market leader, LoveFilm (which had mirrored itself on the US Netflix model), and therefore didn’t need to offer a great deal to their customers.

In recent times, Netflix has made an inroad into that LoveFilm dominance, although I believe LoveFilm has remained bigger. And Amazon has been more heavily branding LoveFilm as Amazon LoveFilm in recent months until today when we lose the LoveFilm moniker altogether.

What they’ve not tried to do is work hard to upgrade UK Prime members to a package that included LoveFilm. They did have an offering – also at £79 – that gave consumers both. But it was handled strangely. You had to cancel your current Prime account, get a refund, and then take out the new deal. Amazon never seemed to try to upsell to the new package, I suspect because they always knew that today was on the horizon.

In many respects, it’s not a great deal. If you just want next day delivery on all your purchases, your cost has just gone up 61%! I would think that’ll be a deal-breaker for many people. Yes – there’s the Kindle lending library, but I’ll be honest, I’ve never used it – on the basis that most of the books I want to read are unlikely to be included (and I rarely see the icon on a book’s page suggesting that they are). So if streaming video is of no interest, you’re seeing an enormous price hike. And the new combined price of £79 seems particularly high compared with the $79 price for the same package in the US, even if in the US it’s more about two day delivery than next day delivery.

And it seems that those still on the DVD monthly rental scheme are seeing the basic price from £7.99 to £9.99. I’m sure that in time, Amazon would like to kill off that administratively complex model. But at the moment, it’s only via discs that Amazon is able to offer the widest selection of fare.

I did have a 6 month cheap trial of LoveFilm about 18 months ago, but I ended up not staying with the service. It just didn’t offer the choice of films I wanted. And there was a particularly frustrating issue with it allowing you to search for a film, only to discover that it was only available as a disc and not for streaming. Let’s face it, LoveFilm was able to offer every film as a disc, so that was particularly frustrating.

Amazon has obviously made inroads into original commissioning, and I’m interested to see their new pilots. However, it was Netflix that got me to sign up first, when they unveiled the first season of House of Cards this time last year.

Amazon will need to up its game in terms of making its device offering better. Netflix is currently superior. Incredibly, there is still no Android app! There obviously is a Kindle app (which of course is built on Android), but Amazon is so determined to flog Kindles, that it has deliberately not made an Android app – a marketing decision that is a strike against them, and is detrimental to the large core of its customers who own Android devices. Amazon does have an app for iPad though!

And the streaming technology used by Amazon is based on the abysmal Silverlight and is thus full of curious error messages and a lack of support on some operating systems like Chromebooks.

For what I imagine are rights reasons, neither Netflix nor Amazon yet offer cached offline viewing as, say, Spotify is able to. This is obviously a shame for those travelling with portable devices. From keeping kids quiet in the back seat to giving yourself a better selection of films than your airline has chosen, there is a significant demand for it. London commuter carriages are packed with people watching iPlayer cached video, and to a lesser extent Sky Go video.

It’ll be interesting to see what the next moves are.

At the moment, it feels that although Amazon is the bigger player in the market, it’s Netflix that has the can’t-miss programming that’s getting critical acclaim. Amazon hasn’t managed this yet. Which goes back to my note the other day about Netflix being a game-changer. Their batting average is high so far, but probability suggests that won’t last.

That said, I note that Amazon has stealthily added pay-per-view to its offering. So it’ll be able to offer Game of Thrones at £1.99 an episode or whatever.

The game’s afoot.

[UPDATE] And according to Re/code, Amazon is going to be launching its own set-top box next month. Whether or not it arrives in the UK, and offers more than their streaming service remains to be seen. One set-top box – one service feels very wasteful.