RealTime IT News

Now Streaming: Netflix on Your PC

Netflix's  popular online DVD rental service is going digital.

The company is looking to expand the freedom it gives subscribers by offering movie and television series rentals as Internet streams through their PCs. Now the company sends DVDs through the mail to subscribers who watch them at their leisure without worrying about late fees.

The new feature, which Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey called a "first step" en route to distributing the company's content on any device that has Internet connectivity, will be included free in Netflix customers' memberships as a phased rollout over the next six months.

Subscribers will continue to receive DVDs by mail but will have the option of instantly watching about 1,000 movies and TV series on their PCs.

Swasey said streaming movies over PCs is just the start. Netflix, which estimates some 6.3 million subscribers through 2006, expects to eventually offer content via Web-enabled smartphones and liquid plasma TVs.

"It's real, it's here, it's now, and it's included with your Netflix membership," Swasey said. "It's DVD-video quality with the ease and simplicity of a YouTube."

Adding electronic delivery of content is Netflix' plan to immerse itself deeper in the digital world, where sensations like Google's YouTube property have spurred the move to Web video, and Apple, Amazon, MovieLink, CinemaNow and other Web video providers fiercely compete.

However, rather than rent or sell movie and TV content as downloads, Netflix streams video through Windows Media Player software at virtually the same time it is being delivered to a user's computer.

Customers install a browser applet once. Users can pause the movies and jump to any point in the movie, as if it were a DVD.

Netflix expects to make the streaming feature available to all Netflix subscribers by the end of June.

Subscribers on the entry-level, $5.99 plan will have six hours of online movie watching per month and subscribers on Netflix's $17.99 plan for unlimited DVD rental will have 18 hours of online movie watching per month.

The notion of delivering content via the Web over PCs, televisions and myriad other devices got major play at the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show, which wrapped last week.

Several companies, from high-tech vendors Sony  and Microsoft  to content provider Starz Entertainment Group, endorsed the delivery of online content, particularly over peoples' entertainment hub -- the television. For sure, Microsoft is banking on its Vista Media Center software to be a major launching pad for online content throughout the home.

While the technology seems to be largely in place, copyright question marks abound; who has the right to show what and in what capacity are the biggest issues that still need to be hammered out.