In my previous (and first) post I briefly mentioned four things I would look at when purchasing an Android phone (and it’s accompanying plan):
- the overlying skin (or lack thereof) such as HTC Sense, TouchWiz or Motoblur
- internal storage space for applications
- version of Android (must have at least 2.2, Froyo)
- data plan
Aside from this the user might have a preference for
- screen size and technology
- whether the phone has a hardware keyboard
- a front facing camera.
Jason posted an excellent comment about another key factor in purchasing a new Android phone: the ability to stream Netflix content. Currently there is no official Netflix application, not even to manage your DVD queue much less stream content from Netflix, on the Android OS. (There are 3rd party apps which allow you to manage your Netflix queue).
Netflix streaming coming to [some] Android devices
Netflix has promised it will release an application for Android sometime in 2011. However, Netflix cannot bring it to every Android phone that will be released in 2011. (Their philosophy is it’s better if some Android phones get it, rather than none at all.) Therefore Jason’s question was on point, lack of Netflix streaming can be a deal breaker for some.
iOS has it, Windows Phone 7 has it and it’s been less than a year since that OS was even released. So why doesn’t Android have a proper Netflix app that allows for streaming? One acronym: DRM. Netflix wants DRM, something iOS and WP7 has.
What is DRM?
DRM, or digital rights management, is a way for digital media to be protected from a user simply pirating copyrighted media. You have a source (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, a videogame) and a player/viewer (VCR, DVD Player or DVD Software, etc.). The source is encrypted such that the player needs a key to decrypt and display the media.
Many VHS tapes were sold with macrovision, and sometimes Disney used their own methods. Here is an example of a copied episode of TaleSpin which suffers from the effects of a protection scheme:
The video largely lacks color (the original TaleSpin episode was in color of course) and the tracking periodically screws up. DVDs had a copy protection built-in. Apple, when it first launched its iTunes music store, only sold DRM music such that it was only playable on their iPod and also difficult to copy. (Apple has since switched away from DRM, though I do not think it was because they want to make our life easier but instead to ensure market supremacy. Apple was facing competition from Amazon MP3 and others, and wanted to be able to sell their music across all devices and not just their iPods.) Gaming consoles have DRM so that you can’t purchase a copied version of that Wii or Xbox 360 game.
Netflix relies on DRM to stream their content, it eases any fears the film industry has about content being pirated. On Windows and OS X, Netflix uses Silverlight 2 (a Microsoft creation) to allow streaming of content onto your computers’ browser (or Windows Media Center). The DRM available in your Wii, Xbox 360 or PS3 is what allows Netflix to securely transmit video directly to those devices. Basically anything Netflix currently streams over, including iOS and Windows Phone 7, has DRM software which allows Netflix to stream content without having to worry about piracy.
What about copied DVDs?
That’s right, DRM isn’t perfect. The encryption in DVDs (and Blu-ray) was cracked a long time ago. There are “modded” Xbox 360s and Wiis which allow one to play copied discs. It is largely understood that DRM is not a perfect solution (but that’s not what I will focus on in this post as that is a post of its own).
The fact that DVD’s DRM was cracked is a perfect example of why Netflix is hesitant to deploy an app onto Android. DVD’s encryption was famously decrypted thanks to the work of three people (Johansen being one) and their strong work at reverse engineering a DVD playback software, Xing DVD Player. The software was reverse engineered and the key was found within the software itself. This is crucially important to my point regarding the future of Netflix streaming on Android.
Xing’s software DVD player actually did a poor job encrypting/hiding the key to decrypt DVDs, which is why this was the method by which the crack was found. In any software-based player, there is always a risk that the key can be found either by reverse engineering or some other means. Software is how the Blu-ray encryption was cracked too. Hardware level encryption is much more difficult to crack (though technically, not impossible).
This difference in software vs hardware DRM is difficult to understand for some so I will try out an analogy. Pretend for a moment you are trying to send a coded message to two of your friends, person A who is incredibly forgetful and person B who has an excellent memory (read: brain = hardware). Person B’s solution is to carry with him a paper that has the key for your coded messages, that paper can be considered software to the brain’s hardware. Each time you send a message to your friends, person A needs to use his cheat sheet to decode and read what you are sending him. Person B however can read the message in its coded form and decrypt it in his head, not leaving a trace of evidence. If Person A’s cheat sheet ever got in the wrong hands, they could use it to create software to decrypt all of your coded messages. So now to connect this analogy to the real world: Silverlight, iOS and Windows Phone 7 all employ software solutions but the cheat sheet is buried and protected very well (something the Xing DVD Player didn’t do).
iOS and Windows Phone 7 have DRM that’s embedded into the OS, and breaking into the OS itself is not easy. Android has DRM for the paid apps on its ecosystem, but approximately a month after its debut the DRM was cracked. (It was software based). Android has no DRM for streaming content, and although users love to tout Android’s open nature lending itself to customizing, this only makes bringing Netflix to the OS more difficult. I imagine Netflix believes if the OS is not locked down, any software based DRM library will eventually be thwarted.
Can’t Netflix make their own DRM?
I wondered this too, as did the author of this post. Read the short portion under “The DRM Conspiracy” where the author points out Amazon and Pandora developed their own DRM to satisfy the publishing and music industries. Why doesn’t Netflix do the same?
So Netflix’s official line is that since Android lacks a proper DRM setup, they cannot create an app that will satisfy major studios. Netflix could create it’s own app that has its own DRM, but I think there are a couple reasons why they won’t. Firstly, it would be yet another software solution that can be reverse engineered and eventually rendered useless. Second, I personally think Netflix does not want to be personally responsible for maintaining a strong DRM system. On PC/Macs Netflix relies on Silverlight, on each console they make use of the DRM system already present., on iOS/Windows Phone 7 the system has a generic DRM scheme for content distribution that Netflix can plug into. In no case does Netflix ever get its hands dirty creating its own DRM system from the ground up.
Yet Netflix is indeed coming to the Android OS. Netflix will rely on hardware DRM. In short they want the SoC (Silicon on Chip, a collection of chips including the CPU that drive the phone) to work with DRM libraries. Certain new models of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon SoC will likely be chips that have the ability to support the necessary DRM Netflix requires. For example, the LG Revolution has been shown to be running a Netflix streaming app that was in development. The LG Revolution is running on the Snapdragon MSM8255. The HTC Thunderbolt and Sharp IS05 are two other phones that use this chip. So one would think that no matter what phone you buy, if you have the Snapdragon MSM8255 chip, you’re home free right? Wrong.
The Snapdragon chip simply means your Android phone has the capability of supporting Netflix. Of course if the OEM (in this case LG, HTC or Sharp) chooses not to bundle/include the necessary DRM libraries that Netflix plans to use in its Android app then the streaming won’t work. HTC’s Thunderbolt has been in the market for some time now and it’s unknown whether it has the necessary libraries. Asking HTC is a practice in patience. And so one can’t help but think of the F word often thrown around Android: fragmentation. We’ll save that for a future post too.
This is why some Android phones released in 2011 will get Netflix streaming, and most won’t.
“Solution” is concerning
If HTC was creating phones to sell directly to us, things might be different. The system would behave more like a market economy, and the demand for a Netflix streaming app would outweigh any concerns carriers (AT&T, Verizon) might have. And to an extent HTC is designing the phone to sell to us, the consumers: big screens, fancy cameras, Facebook!
Yet in America we employ this dumb system of purchasing phones on contract which allows us to upgrade every 2 years, since we never pay full price on a phone. HTC has to sell to AT&T and Verizon just as much as they have to sell their product to us. Can you imagine trying to create a product that balances the needs of two very different consumers? And do you think AT&T and Verizon want you to stream Netflix over their networks? What if AT&T and or Verizon, both increasingly in the business of distributing video content to the home (AT&T U-Verse, Verizon FiOS), want to setup their own streaming distribution system?
Verizon and AT&T may not want this new Netflix-compliant HTC phone that runs on a new Snapdragon SoC, unless HTC removes the necessary DRM libraries. That way Verizon or AT&T can sell you content/video through their own store. HTC already plans on doing this with their new HTC Sensation and yes, it has DRM, most likely powered by Snapdragon’s hardware DRM library support. Yes, the same series of chips that the LG Revolution is using to work Netflix.
What’s more concerning is that looking at how Android is created one wonders whether future Nexus devices will have support for Netflix at all, even if it runs on a DRM capable chip. Remember, Nexus devices run “pure” Android. As you can see in the image below, OS libraries sit just below the application framework.
(picture taken from “What is Android?” page in the Developers Guide to Android)
Speaking strictly of the “pure” Android OS, if the DRM library is going to sit in that green box, I imagine it would require Google to either develop a DRM library for each SoC. One system for Snapdragon (Qualcomm), another DRM system for Hummingbird (Samsung’s SoC), and yet another for Tegra 2 (NVidia’s SoC). (Unfortunately DRM is not as neutral to SoC architecture as Java is). Please correct me if I am wrong on this.
Wait, so what should I do if I want Netflix on Android?
For now I expect the LG Revolution to support the upcoming Netflix app, although nothing is confirmed. Unfortunately even if a phone uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon series of SoC there is no guarantee Netflix’s app will stream on it.
If you need Netflix on the go and can live without Android, your life will be far easier on a Windows Phone 7 or iOS device.
A Look Ahead
I want to discuss the Android OS a little, it’s strengths including it’s user interface. It will be very basic, not a full fledged user guide. I definitely want to do a “must have apps” post or two, in which I detail why I enjoy using a particular app. Maybe a brief post on the freedom of the Android Market as well as the side loading of apps, in contrast to the Apple App Store. Finally I want to make sure I discuss all the weaknesses of living with the Android ecosystem as well as the Android OS itself, at least from a basic user’s perspective.