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Amazon needs to simplify Prime Video to compete with Netflix

Engadget Engadget 20/04/2016 Nathan Ingraham

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You can now buy a monthly subscription to Amazon Prime Video, a move that puts the service in direct competition with Netflix. In a lot of ways, Amazon comes out looking like a strong option -- for starters, it's cheaper. $8.99 per month gets you an arguably better movie catalog than what you'll find on Netflix these days, not to mention Amazon's own slate of original programming and access to most of HBO's back catalog.

With a monthly payment option, it's now easier to test out Amazon Prime Video without making a year-long commitment to Amazon Prime. Combine that with the service's strong content lineup and it seems like Netflix could have cause for concern. But there are still a few things working against Amazon from a product perspective that keep it from being as good as Netflix, and they might not be so easy to fix.

It's an issue of complexity, born out of Prime Video's history as a value-add that Amazon now feels is important enough to stand alone as its own product. Netflix was built, first and foremost, as a streaming video subscription service. Yes, the company's disc-based offering came first, but streaming video has been the company's main business for a long time now. Many of Netflix's current subscribers likely never had a DVD delivery plan.

Because of its tight focus, Netflix streaming is a product that is quite easy to use. You search for content or browse Netflix's personalized recommendations and play what you want, confident that your monthly subscription has you covered. Amazon's Prime Video service is less simple, in part because the company also maintains a huge on-demand digital video store alongside Prime Video. Whether you're searching on your computer or browsing content offerings on your TV, you'll come across loads of content that isn't included with your subscription.

Amazon does what it can to distinguish between things you can watch for free and things you need to pay extra for, but it's still a bummer when you've come across something you want to watch that isn't included with your subscription. It's even trickier with TV shows; many programs have past seasons included, but current seasons are typically limited to purchase only. Amazon lets you filter for "included with Prime" options, but search still naturally shows everything by default. It's not an insurmountable issue, but it's definitely not as clean an experience as Netflix or Hulu.

Compounding the complexity for Amazon are a variety of "add-on" subscriptions for channels like Showtime, Starz and Comedy Central, among others. This is essentially Amazon's way of letting users of devices like the Fire TV or Fire Stick sign up for these services within the Amazon ecosystem. These add-ons aren't directly related to Prime video subscriptions, though they do have the benefit of making Amazon's video offering a one-stop shop. Still, it's not entirely clear at first glance how these services work alongside Prime Video.

And that's not even mentioning the fact that Amazon doesn't offer a video app for the new Apple TV. I understand why: Amazon can't sell video through its app without giving Apple a cut, so the application would have to be limited to playback of purchased content from your Amazon account. But it would still be convenient for Prime Video subscribers. Right now, you can Airplay Amazon content from your iPhone or iPad to your Apple TV, but given the app-based framework of tvOS, not having a native app feels like a miss. If Amazon is willing to build one for the iPad and iPhone, why not the Apple TV?

That's not the only place where Amazon has some app weirdness. For some reason, there's no Amazon Video app for Android in the Play Store. Instead, you have to sideload the "Amazon Underground" Appstore for Android and then install the video player through there. It's not terribly difficult to do this, but it's not a great experience either, particularly for less tech-savvy folks who don't even know what "sideloading" means.

To be clear, none of these problems are dealbreakers. Its service runs on nearly every other competing set-top box, video game console and smart TV. The content lineup is strong, and being able to stream, buy and rent content all through one service is pretty handy. There's no doubt it adds complexity, but it's not all bad. Still, it's hard to argue with the simplicity that Netflix has on its side as a major reason for its success. If you've used Netflix on one device, you'll have the same experience anywhere else you use it. That's not the case for Amazon. As more customers check it out with this new monthly plan, any way the company can find to make the service easier to use will be a big help.

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