As much as we love Netflix, we've always found it a bit odd that the browsing experience is fragmented between platforms. Jumping between PS3, Xbox and Roku devices can be a jarring experience, each offering its own spin on the Netflix queue with an inconsistent distribution of the service's best features. Even Netflix is put off by the mixed ecosystem: which is why it's launching a new, unified television experience today.
"About a year and half ago we took a step back to think about Netflix's television experience across devices," explains company director of innovation Chris Jaffe. "What we saw was a mismatch in how Netflix worked relative to how regular TV works, where you just turn it on and things are happening." Jaffe explained that compared to the active browsing experience of traditional channel surfing, Netflix seemed static. "We also looked at the devices and realized that while we've got a great experience on the PS3 and some smart TVs, we've got an Xbox 360 experience that's very different." Fixing these problems required the company to rethink its interface from the ground up. We met up with Netflix to see the results.
Jaffe explained that one of the first things Netflix did away with was the old, movie-poster shaped title cards - they just weren't a good fit for today's widescreen HDTVs. Seeing the new interface boot up, we're inclined to agree: the queue is now displayed with shorter (but wider) tiles that span across the lower third of the 10-foot display. The selected title headlines the horizontal scroll with a brief description of the program and three splash images, rotating every few seconds to foster a more dynamic experience.
"What you see is an experience that's much more visually rich," explained Jaffe, pointing to an area just below the title summary. "We broke out this new area that has something interesting about each title personalized for you." Here, Netflix will tell you if any of your friends watched the title, or if it might be a good fit for you based on your viewing history (recommending Doctor Who because you watched Lost, for instance). Diving into a TV series populates episodes on the left, showing a screenshot, a viewing progress bar and an episode synopsis at a glance. Even search makes better use of real estate, offering a graphical list of title results on the right side of the screen while simultaneously listing actor results in the lower left. Oh, and search is predictive too, which saves a ton of time when using a hunt and peck on-screen keyboard.
The new interface is certainly an improvement, but it's probably more notable that it serves as a fresh start for Netflix and its apps. "If we came out with a great new feature" Jaffe explained, "we'd have to write it for PS3. We'd have to write it for Xbox -- we have to write it for all these platforms." Bringing Netflix Max or voice control to multiple platforms meant rewriting the code over and over again. The latest update introduces apps built on the same foundation, a new platform Netflix created to streamline its development processes. Now, Jaffe told us, they can code the feature once and distribute it to all platforms.
All if this backend innovation will have one casualty though: Jaffe told us that Xbox 360 users who update to the new interface won't be able to use Kinect gesture control anymore -- the update uses a Netflix-sourced voice protocol that doesn't leave room for the floating hand trick. On the plus side, the new voice technology will allow the company to implement deeper voice control in Smart TVs. All in all, it seems like a solid, forward thinking update to Netflix's TV apps, and it's available now for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 (at launch), Xbox 360, Roku 3 and an assortment of recent Smart TVs and Blu-ray players, and older Roku boxes and other devices will be updated in the coming months. The only device guaranteed not to be on the docket? The Xbox One: Netflix says it's been working with Microsoft to create an experience that matches the existing Xbox paradigm. It might leave the console out of uniform, but the company promises us it'll look sharp, all the same.