Streaming service free-for-all: which one will win and which is the best for you?


Online content streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video are situated to control what the future of media streaming looks like, and they are all making different choices on how their particular future will look. To be completely honest, I’m betting Netflix comes out ahead in the battle for the consumer, but I’ll leave it to your judgment based on the information below.

At first glance, the streaming market seems pretty clearly laid out. You have Netflix providing the bulk of well-known content that Amazon or HBO hasn’t snapped up or refused to license.

Netflix also has the finder’s bonus of being the first firm to capture the online streaming market, and the additional slam-dunk advantage of hosting critical and consumer darlings “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards,” among other original content. Finally, the streaming giant already showed its ability to innovate quickly in a significant way when it phase-changed business models in 2007 from a DVD-rental structure to one of video-streaming. Netflix offers three levels of service: basic, standard, and Ultra HD-4K (I wonder which they are most excited about”¦) costing $7.99, $9.99, and $11.99 respectively. Upgrading increases the number of screens on which you can stream, and the Ultra HD-4K package gives you access to, surprise, very high definition versions of content.

On the other side we have Hulu. The company used to have the monopoly (among streaming services) on supplying weekly TV shortly after it aired. This was a huge advantage for the people who didn’t want to wait months to watch on other platforms, but I say “was” because Hulu is currently phasing out their free-to-use model in favor of a dual-stage price plan that seems to give consumers a lose-lose decision. Do they buy the cheaper $7.99-per-month plan that retains commercials (essentially charging eight bucks for what they used to offer for free) or shell out $11.99 to get rid of those pesky ads.

To me, Hulu looked at their business model one day and realized that they made a huge mistake offering free content compared to their subscription-based rivals and now have to deal with the backlash. No consumer likes to have what they already get for free get slapped with a monthly fee. However, the advantage of providing TV with actual cable providers will probably be enough to keep them in the fight. One last slap at Hulu: it’s virtually unavailable overseas, unlike the caressing arms of Netflix.

Amazon Video is a bit of a hybrid case. The streaming service is one of many arms Amazon has going at once, and users can gain access to a large, though not comprehensive, amount of content by subscribing to Amazon Prime for $99 a year. Comparatively, this is only slightly more expensive than either Hulu’s or Netflix’s basic packages (by month, Amazon Video would cost about $8.25). But the system has a few usability issues, foremost of which is their mix of free and paid content. Many times I’ll sit down to watch Spongebob with a glass of brandy and opera glasses, only to find that the (admittedly platinum quality) first season is free while the rest costs $1.99 per episode. Having clear-cut guidelines as to which series are free and which cost is an important part of the service that Amazon has not debugged.

Of course, the unusual part of this model is that while the service has arguably inferior access to content than either Netflix’s or Hulu’s, Amazon Prime primarily benefits its core customer base, i.e. those who order products online. Prime’s free shipping and two-day delivery make the hundred bucks already worth it to some consumers, with the video streaming as a nice bonus. This also makes guessing the numbers of Amazon Video users difficult, as subscribing to Prime does not necessarily mean watching Video content. All of that being said, some ringer shows like “Transparent” and “Mozart in the Jungle” have garnered critical and commercial attention, making it certainly worth checking out if you also enjoy buying bulk bags of Cheetos and want them delivered in two sweet, sweet days. In any case, Amazon is likely to keep its one-foot-in, one-foot-out attitude when it comes to its focus on streaming content when it has such a cash cow “” no, cash herd “” in the delivery side of business.

Lastly, HBO Go is the late-comer to the streaming party. HBO clearly has the advantage in terms of top-tier content such as modern classics “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Deadwood,” “Game of Thrones” and the list could go on for a dozen more shows. The problem for HBO is not only monetary “” the service (which comes free with HBO subscription) costs $15 in most cases “” but also institutional: for many online users, paying for a cable service like HBO must seem as relevant as getting a physical newspaper delivered.

Overall, Netflix is the reigning champion in terms of user numbers (around 70 million) pricing, usability and variety of content. But Hulu is the next contender due to their close relationship with Time Warner Cable, who recently bought 10% of their marketshare. With such powerful friends, Netflix might have something to worry about in the long run.

Regardless of your preferences, I hope this has helped some of you decide which services to adopt and which ones to a-dump.