Think Your Encoding Job is Tough? Every Netflix 'Watch Instantly' Video is Encoded over 100 Times
Netflix is undeniably a bargain for consumers. The variety of content it features is immense, even though instant viewing choices fluctuate somewhat frustratingly -- but don't expect the average consumer to be understanding about the rather ugly licensing problems that cause this. It's hard to argue with the price, despite Netflix's problems. The removal of its native social component, splitting DVD/streaming subscriptions, its sensory overload/option paralysis layout, and its lame payouts to creators are all issues to take with the service. That said, anyone who appreciates the engineering behind modern content delivery can respect Netflix's ease of viewing -- possible via multi-device integration, and, more vitally, the number of encodings each video must undergo for that famous 'instant view' ability.
Support for almost 1,000 devices is certainly a key facet of Netflix's internet-based On Demand fluidity -- that's true "On Demand." But what goes on in the background for each and every such device including your computer (and each and every piece of media), is really the lifeblood of what makes the Netflix engine tick. Netflix has recently shared some explanation of this, with props to Gigaom for their subsequent write-up.
It's a fairly straightforward concept that video on YouTube, for instance, must be encoded for each of the resolution options available for your manual selection -- but theoretically, only that many encodings are necessary. Netflix, on the other hand, simply can't leave you waiting on the buffer to give you uninterupted viewing, a luxury YouTube may have, because viewers may be patient for the sake of guaranteed quality.
Netflix has to just work -- and to do so, the service must almost instantaneously (the feature is called 'Watch Intantly,' after all) and automatically gauge things like latency and bandwidth of your connection, assumedly each time you demand a 'play' (if not more often). Then, without missing a beat, the service starts feeding whatever-quality version of the media in question your connection can take, and no higher, to work as seamlessly as changing a TV channel or the On Demand your cable provider brings you. Even with all this in mind, though, 120 discrete encodings is simply staggering -- but Netflix wouldn't implement specifications for this many separate versions of the same thing if it didn't find doing so a necessity. Streamlining is the name of this game, and even with a trimming-the-fat mentality, quality control considerations are, reassuringly, governing such a workflow.
Furthermore -- as Gigaom also highlights -- content creators who can provide media optimized to this model are primed to make out with more cash at the end of a deal:
Frequently Netflix finds itself looking for opportunities to grow its streaming catalogs quickly with budget dollars that have not yet been allocated. Increasingly the Netflix deal teams are considering the effectiveness of a content owner’s delivery abilities when making those spending decisions. Simply put, content owners who can deliver quickly and without error are getting more licensing revenue from Netflix.
Does this information surprise you? Thinking about it, would you expect a service like Netflix to use quite this many encodings -- or perhaps even more? Do you think this is a strong gesture for a balance between quality and 'watch it now' considerations?