[Updated 03-Nov-08 to account for the opening of Netflix's public beta. -Adam]
A few weeks ago I reported on Netflix's blog announcement that the company hoped to make its Watch Instantly feature accessible to Mac users by the end of 2008 (see "Netflix Mac Support News and More," 2008-10-08). Netflix has now backed up their claim by unveiling their new media player - based on Microsoft's Silverlight technology. While it may seem surprising that the long-awaited solution to this Mac-access problem comes by way of Microsoft, you probably won't be surprised to learn that the root of the problem lies in digital rights management (DRM) technology requirements from the studios. According to Netflix:
"Apple does not license their DRM solution to third parties, which has made this more difficult, but we are working with the studios and content owners to gain approval for other solutions. As soon as a studio-approved DRM for the Mac is available to us, whether from Apple or another source, we will move quickly to provide a movie viewer that enables you to watch movies from Netflix instantly on your Mac."
The new Netflix player will use Microsoft's PlayReady DRM - new in Silverlight 2.0 - to prevent users from doing anything but watching the content. Netflix's current player relies on a Windows-only DRM system.
For those hearing about Microsoft Silverlight for the first time, it's a technology akin to Adobe Flash in that it's embodied in a Web browser plug-in and can display animations, audio and video, and interactive applications. Silverlight was first put to the test this past summer in streaming the Beijing Olympics for NBC. The player streamed thousands of hours of live coverage with generally successful results.
Unfortunately, as Mac users attempting to watch Olympic video discovered, the new Netflix player works only on Intel-based Macs, leaving older PowerPC-based Macs in the lurch. Netflix claims that Intel-based Macs account for about three quarters of the company's current Mac-based subscribers. So while a fix for the majority of Mac users is certainly better than nothing, it's a shame for that remaining 25 percent to be denied access. It's hard to imagine that Microsoft will extend Silverlight back to PowerPC-based Macs in the future.
Although Netflix initially limited access to the beta of the new player to new subscribers, the company has since opened the beta program to anyone who wants to sign up. Have at it, but remember, since it's a beta, you shouldn't expect perfect performance out of the gate.