Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Netflix Downward Spiral

The mighty may still fall; even in 2011.

If you tried to access the Netflix web site last night, for about three hours you encountered a static page displaying a total of 264 streaming movies from 11 different categories. Now, 264 movies may seem like a lot, but compared to the entire Netflix catalogue, it's a very small fraction.

It didn't matter if you tried to access the home page or the member sign-in page, or any other page. All that was available was the one static page with 264 streaming movies. No queue, no settings, no nothing. At the top of the page was the following terse, non-explanatory message:

"We're currently experiencing a technical issue."

Below that was a bit longer subtext, that read, "While we get things back to normal, some features aren't available - but you can play select titles on this page."

Interesting. While this could be the result of any of a number of possibilities, I would like to suggest three that immediately stood out to me.

Possibility Number One
(the most plausible to me)
This is merely the beginning of sorrows for Netflix customers, as Netflix attempts to permanently separate the DVD rental and streaming service into two different online entities. Oh yes, there will be more outages as they bumble their way toward their goal of justification for charging customers nearly twice as much as they did previously. One possible future 'apology': "Sorry, we have to alter rates as we see fit; we're dealing with two different companies now."

Possibility Number Two
The technical difficulty isn't technical at all, but merely an annoying way to temporarily gauge what people will be willing to stream in to their entertainment screens on a Saturday night. This may be the night many people like to hit the town, but it's also the night many more people like to curl up with a movie on the couch. The value of pulling such a stunt would be in examining on a small scale how users will react to less selection, such as when Starz pulls out permanently in February 2012.

For those who have their own DVDs, or use RedBox, Blockbuster, or Netflix for their DVD rentals, the temporary inaccessibility of the Netflix user account interface is a minor issue.

But for those who have elected to go with streaming only, and who don't use any other service, such as Hulu Plus, having such a limited access to streaming content is quite irritating. Especially on the heels of rate hikes and the company-spawning prestidigitation that was sold to customers as unavoidable.

If this is what happened (and I actually doubt that it was), then Netflix has dug themselves even further into a hole that they already may not be able to crawl out of, in terms of customer opinion.

Now, on to what I'm hoping actually happened, whether or not I am correct.

Possibility Number Three
Quite simply stated, Netflix pissed off the wrong people with their greedy antics.

The wrong people: those with the savvy to wage an attack on public or private Internet servers, with the intentions of doing anything from minor mischief to completely corrupting the data of the entire legion of cloud-connected networked computers managed by Netflix.

Any company the size of Netflix surely has almost equally savvy individuals who constantly monitor server activity and design plans that allow for data recovery in the worst of scenarios. That's what data redundancy is all about, especially backing up data to off site locations. In the networked digital world, only a fool maintains no backup of his or her company's data.

So what I propose happened is that the entire Netflix online 'empire' was compromised and corrupted to enough of a degree that emergency measures were activated by Netflix to temporarily point their IP address to a server cluster not on their normal network. A server cluster capable of streaming 264 movies until data is restored and the point of entry is discovered and patched.

So there you have it. I could easily be wrong about all three proposals, but the romantic part of me, the part that cheers for the underdog who battles against the greedy monarch who devirginizes the brides of peasants on their wedding nights... that part of me wants to think that a handful of highly irritated and highly talented individuals decided to send Netflix a message:

You are not invincible, and your decisions do have consequences, both good and bad.