When a company with a dead giveaway like "Net" in its name redesigns its webpage, it's big news. And as we've seen every time Facebook or Twitter revamps its landing pages, or Yahoo! updates its monstrously popular Yahoo! Mail, disgruntled users come out en masse to complain about it.
That's where Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) stands today. The landing page for its increasingly central Watch Instantly service just got a severe overhaul, and many users hate it. The announcement on the Netflix blog had received just 38 Facebook "likes," but more than 800 mostly negative comments as of this writing.
Why all the rancor? In short, the browser-based streaming spread now looks and feels more like the custom menu systems on your Roku box, Blu-ray player, or gaming console. Categorized cover images fill the page with larger and more detailed covers than before. Star ratings are hiding in pop-up balloons that activate when your mouse hovers over a movie long enough, along with the usual brief synopsis, an option to add the item to your streaming queue, and a link to the detailed information page. Clicking on a cover defaults to playing the movie.
It's a radical departure from the DVD-browsing interface, which remains unchanged in case you want a before-and-after comparison, and even that slightly more traditional presentation is a serious shift from the Netflix of old.
There was a time when Netflix looked like Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) , with text-packed sidebars and cluttered presentation. That's fine for general retailing, but Netflix now caters to impulse clicks that don't cost you a dime. So now it's easier to just start watching something to see if you like it, than to spend a few extra clicks to see a rating or read reviews.
Whether that's good or bad is up to you, the consumer. I'm still getting used to the change and am not sure I like it. The website is handy for doing research and loading up your instant-watching queue, but I still don't like to watch movies on my computer screen. So why make it harder to find the info I'm looking for?
The answer may lie in operational efficiency. This looks like an attempt to share code and development efforts between the webpage and the programming interfaces presented to outside developers. And as Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) has shown, there's value in having a consistent user interface when moving from one device to the next.
In the end, Netflix lives and dies by user satisfaction. If this revamp leads to happier users and better word-of-mouth marketing, then it's all good. An unpopular interface will go the way of the dodo bird in short order. But you can bet that CEO Reed Hastings has applied his engineering background and tested the changes with impunity before rolling them out to every customer.
Despite my misgivings, I expect the change to help Netflix more than it hurts. And if I want sortable lists or at-a-glance ratings, I can always just use the DVD pages instead -- or go look for browser extensions that change the Netflix experience back to the old model.
One thing is for sure: Netflix is never boring. Click here to add the stock to My Watchlist, just to make sure you don't blink and miss the next mini-revolution in digital video.