An Open Letter to Amazon and Netflix

Chill, Amazon and Netflix with the DRM

Dear “New Media” Companies,

Two years ago I decided to take the plunge and purchase a UHD TV.

But I thought twice about it, deciding that I would hold off until there was adequate 4K content available. At that time the 4K market was weak. UHD Blu-rays had yet to be released, and other than some YouTube content and perhaps a few shows from your companies, there wasn’t much available.

Finally at the cusp of 2018 I decided to make the move. There’s much streaming media currently available in UHD (as you’re obviously aware), as well as a plethora of UHD Blu-rays.

So I now have a very nice Sony OLED hooked up to my HTPC.

But the sad part of the story is that you lost me at “HTPC”.

I’ve used a computer to consume my “TV” media since the heady days of 2003, when I needed component cables to hook it up to a rear-projection 720p monstrosity of a television. It was a more flexible DVR than the TiVo, it was a DVD player, a streaming media player, an MP3 player, a gaming platform, and yet more!

A computer has, is, and will most likely remain the best tool to hook up to one’s television.

So it was that I excitedly loaded up the Netflix website and started watching a video. The contrast and color of the OLED TV made it look fantastic! Only… It wasn’t all that sharp. So I investigated, and I can say without irony that I was shocked to learn that Netflix intentionally doesn’t allow its customers to stream 4K content to their computers. And then my surprise was doubled when I learned that neither does Amazon.

This, despite the web browser being the first (and at the time, only) vehicle on which your content could be viewed. The web browser was your stepping stone into the streaming world, and your raison d’être in that space. (Or more accurately your capacité à être.)

Yet for reasons that seem to have more to do with protecting your intellectual property than providing your loyal customers with cutting-edge content, Ultra HD video is not available in the browser. Hell, Netflix doesn’t even go above 720p (welcome back to 2003) on anything but the dreaded Edge.*

I’ll get to why that’s ridiculous and self-defeatist in a moment.

First I’d like to point out that I am indeed a loyal customer. I’ve been using Netflix since the DVDs-by-mail of the late 90s, I’ve been a regular Amazon customer since around that same time, and a Prime customer since it was first offered. You both have shows that, in my opinion, are some of the best available from old media and new media alike.

Speaking of the 1990s, I was one of the first users of that new-fangled MP3 format. The first album in my collection was Tool’s Undertow, ripped by me from my very own CD sometime in 1995.

I had a portable MP3 player before the iPod even existed, and watched with a heavy heart as Apple and the RIAA tricked millions of consumers into jumping down a deep pit of DRM-protected music. A pit from which some still haven’t clawed their way out.

It’s important for you to know that I’m not a pirate. I believe that people should pay a fair price for the work of others, and in that spirit I don’t participate in peer-to-peer (nor other) file sharing arrangements. I have a large collection of music and videos on my file server, all of which were purchased (or recorded from TV) by myself over many years, solely for my own consumption.

Yet I have a great interest in — and some sympathy for — the people that illegally share and copy media. Whether you like it or not, those pirates have shaped the current media landscape, and I take a great deal of schadenfreude from the consternation they’ve given to media conglomerates. Their actions are, in large part, due to those media companies not giving customers what they want and deserve.

You see, I have a special hatred for DRM.

Digital rights management has never worked. It has done little to nothing in protecting the rights and revenues of corporations, yet it has done a great deal of damage to the law-abiding consumer.

In an age where almost every person has a smartphone, smart speaker, smart TV, plus a tablet and computer (or tablet computer), it can make for a frustrating and confusing landscape. Yes, one can login to Netflix or Amazon on all of those devices and stream your shows.

But are your apps stable and fully functional on all of those platforms? Do all of those apps and platforms have a unified user experience? Is the media downloadable and portable across all those devices? Do you guarantee that users will be able to go back and watch episodes of their favorite shows ten years from now?

You already know that the answer is “no” to all. Those questions are the height of rhetoric, yet they shouldn’t be! An affirmative answer to each of those questions would benefit the consumer: Your customer, your reason for being, and the source of your revenue.

Yet you confuse and frustrate your customers in the name of “digital rights”.

Are any of you old enough to remember the days of the Betamax/VHS wars? That’s when TV and movie studio executives in starched shirts chomped on cigars and worried over the impending downfall of their industries, wrought by the boogyman of recorded video.

Yet their old-media empires wore on.

I’ve already mentioned the era when the RIAA wrung its hands in disgust at the possibility of people actually bringing their entire collection of music with them wherever they went, and how their gross restrictions wrangled a generation into proprietary and perpetual music licenses. I remember that a certain colossal “new media” company began selling DRM-free MP3s on their website. Do you remember that, Amazon?

Yet the recording industry is alive and well, even without DRM.

The irony is that the internet allows budding artists to bring their music directly to their fans. As of late, I’ve spent more money on Bandcamp than on Amazon for MP3s (well, FLAC, which Amazon fails to provide). Artists can enjoy nearly 100% of the revenues without the spectre of stuffed shirts pilfering “their share”. Artists have done more damage to the recording industry over the past few years than pirates ever have.

It’s been a similar thing lately for the video industry on YouTube. In fact, some weeks I consume more well-produced YouTube shows than content from either of your companies.

And surely you’ve heard the tale of the horrid illegal number. I won’t bore you with that one. Yet DVDs still sold by the millions.

In fact, your companies did more damage to physical media sales than any internet pirate ever could.

And despite your being founded by (and full of) fresh young faces who have Wikipedia at their beck and call to dredge up all this history, you insist on strangling your customers with encryption, proprietary apps, sub-par hardware platforms, and other useless nonsense.

“It’s certainly not useless! It protects muh rights!”

I can hear you right now. And no, it doesn’t.

Every single Netflix and Amazon original show is available right now on The Pirate Bay (and likely elsewhere). Every single one. Your hamstringing of customers and your willful disregard for history (even for your very own histories!) is plain baffling.

It doesn’t matter how clever your teams of DRM engineers might be. They are hapless compared to the thousands upon thousands of worldwide “hackers” that can crack any scheme you might invent. I don’t say that as a pirate. I say it as an observer of history.

I pay for your services. I enjoy your shows and products. I am a loyal customer. Yet I cannot watch the 4K content of which you are so proud.

The built-in software and interface on my high-end, brand-new Sony “smart” TV is feckless, slow, and difficult to navigate. Can you imagine how awful it will be in five years, when the rest of the world has moved on but my TV remains staunchly bolted to my wall? Yet it’s one of the few only devices I own that can play your 4K videos.

Yes, I can buy one of Amazon’s Fire products and watch your shows in UHD. I in fact have a Fire box, and it’s not all that bad! (For Amazon content.)

But Plex runs like shit on it. It can’t stream Netflix UHD content, and the Netflix app isn’t very good. Why would it be? They’re a competitor.

Yes, there are Rokus and a plethora of other streaming devices, many of which may or may not be able to play your content in UHD. Some cannot stream both your companies’ content in UHD, however. It’s a quagmire for the average consumer.

My HTPC is a fairly old HP Z420 workstation. It cost about three-hundred bucks on eBay, has an E5-1620 processor, 16GB of RAM, a Samsung Pro SSD, a GTX1060 video card, optical audio out to a proper surround sound system, and a 10GbE fiber connection to my file server. Overkill? Perhaps. But there’s simply no way a tiny little box with a purposefully low-powered Atom or ARM processor can compete. Oh, and it can play PC games (are there any other kind?) at high resolutions and reasonable framerates.

It’s also the best possible platform on which to consume every provider’s content.

Just not in Ultra HD. (And, again, sometimes not even in plain ol’ FHD.)

Yet some of your shows are available on Torrent sites right now, in 2160p quality. All are available at 1080p.

So I, as one of your loyal customers have no way to legally watch your content in 4K. Yet I could easily watch it, were I to participate in your nemesis, P2P file sharing.

Do you realize how stupid that sounds? That illegal downloads are of a higher quality than what your paying customers can access on your own websites? Do you really think that slightly-lower-resolution torrents are going to cause people to give up on pirating your content?

That’s “old media” thinking.

Don’t punish your fond and loyal customers for the misdeeds of others.

Strip out your DRM and let us breathe.

I’d even pay you a couple of more bucks a month for the privilege.




* Netflix does not make it obvious at what resolution a customer’s video is streaming. In fact, the only way to find out is to hit Ctrl+Shift+Alt+D: An intuitive key combination that surely any layperson would know! I’d be willing to wager that you, Netflix, have customers paying for your “4K” plan who aren’t even aware that they’re viewing 720p or 1080p video on their computer (and possibly on other devices). It’s deceitful and it borders on a scam. You need to make it plainly obvious to consumers when they’re not getting what they paid for.

Contrast that to free YouTube, wherein which they put a plainly visible icon in the lower-right corner showing the streaming quality. They also let the viewer explicitly change resolutions. It’s shameful that you don’t give your paying customers the very same.

Amazon’s player does explicitly provide the resolution, but doesn’t allow it to be changed. That’s fine for me, because I have an unmetered internet connection. Others may actually want the option for a lower-quality feed, if not because their connection is metered but because they don’t want to interfere with other network activity. I’d rather explicitly set it to 2160p in perpetuity, which obviously I cannot.


PS (for those pedants out there):

  • I understand the difference between DCI spec 4K and UHD. I use the terms interchangeably here for variety, and because they are regularly bunged together in marketing and hence in the mind of the average consumer.
  • Before anyone strings me up for mentioning TPB or torrenting in general, I seriously doubt that this is revelatory to Amazon and Netflix. If somehow they didn’t know about it, they really do need to hear it from me so that they can get their heads out of their respective asses.
  • All dates are approximate and off the top of my head. My point remains, even if the dates are slightly changed.
  • I’m sure XYZ Company makes ABC Box which can be re-imaged with GHI Open-Source-Magic-Software, and it will play everything in perfect UHD from every content provider and also make your shits smell like flowers. The purity of a standard Intel/AMD computer with a decent video card cannot be beaten. I don’t care about small and low power consumption. I want a big fuck-off piece of hardware that’ll last me 8 years and won’t get lost in the couch cushions.
  • Netflix will let you stream UHD content on a PC. Providing that you have an i7 Kaby Lake CPU (presumably for DRM-related extensions), Windows 10 with the latest Creator’s Update (whatever the hell that means), and that you use the Edge browser (the most hated browser in the world). While I embarrassingly do use Windows 10 for my HTPC**, I think a bleeding-edge i7 machine is needlessly expensive for the purpose. It’s a ridiculous requirement, and barely worth mentioning.
  • **Sigh. If you think I’m complaining now, how about the history of trying to view legal DRM-protected content in Linux? There’s also the gaming market. Those are rants for another day. FWIW I run about 35 Linux machines (many virtualized) plus a couple of FreeBSD boxes in my house. I use Windows for many desktops for mainstream compatibility reasons. The right tool for the right job. E.g. I hate my dishwasher because it’s a poorly-engineered worthless piece of LG trash, but I still use it because at the end of the day it does wash dishes (with some cajoling).
  • I was being somewhat facetious about my “PC master race” gaming comment. I don’t care all that much. But my arguments against proprietary gaming consoles are similar to my arguments against proprietary streaming hardware/software.

PPS (for every company that makes a remote-controlled “smart” device):

Look up the Gyration Air Music Remote.

They don’t make it any more, and you can get one on eBay but not the necessary USB receiver dongle. Aside from a touchscreen and/or full keyboard and mouse, it’s hands-down the best way to navigate “smart TV”-style platforms. It’s also the best way to navigate around an HTPC from the couch. It basically lets you wave your remote around, and a mouse cursor follows your hand movements on screen. It uses a simple accelerometer (AFAIK).

Someone needs to rip off their design. Simplify it. Take off 80% of the buttons. Leave the volume buttons, a few programmable keys, a home button and probably a couple of others. Needless to say also leave the accelerometer-driven pointing capability and the right- and left-click “mouse” buttons. Make it interface via Bluetooth rather than some proprietary crap.

It takes a little while to get accustomed to using it, but it’s fantastic once you do.

Make that the interface device for a Fire TV, Roku, smart TV, or whatever-the-fuck and I might actually consider using one.

Arrow keys are a bullshit way to navigate any menu system and voice commands make you look like a fool in your own home.

About Scott

I'm a computer guy with a new house and a love of DIY projects. I like ranting, and long drives on your lawn. I don't post everything I do, but when I do, I post it here. Maybe.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply