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The State of Video Streaming Services in India

It's been about 2 years since online video streaming caught on in India. There were some services here and there that tried their hands on this format of content delivery. But nobody really nailed it. Nobody really pushed hard; they were just experiments. Not until Hotstar came into the scene. With the launch of Hotstar in 2015, thing started rolling. And now everybody wants a piece of these huge market. Here are my top 3 picks from the bevy of streaming services in India.

Screenshot for MKBHD's Ask MKBHD video
Yes, my posts are biased! (Video link)
As you go through the rest of the post, you will realize that this review isn't from a neutral standpoint. So in that sense this post is biased. Well, of course it is! The review is based on my experiences with the services. The devices I use had a lot to do with it. I use an OnePlus One running Cyanogen OS 13.1 and a Lenovo G50-80 running Ubuntu 16.04.3. With that out of the way, let's dive in!

Amazon Prime Video

Amazon Prime Video is the most affordable video streaming service in India at just ₹499 per annum. But the best part is that it's Amazon Prime you're subscribing to and not to Amazon Prime Video. Amazon hasn't launched all the Prime benefits in India at this point of time. As more benefits are launched, the deal will only get sweeter. Now on to the service itself. My initial reaction for the service was mixed; mostly anger. When I found out Prime Video has Mr. Robot in its library, I was super excited. But the excitement didn't last long. The episodes were censored and that got me really pissed. I was so mad that I wrote an entire blog post about it. Fortunately, as I found out, other than the first couple of episodes, the rest of the episodes was uncensored. There are many movies and shows which have been censored. But there are also those which haven't been touched. I don't know what's Amazon's play here. Even though I don't like how Amazon deals with the whole censorship thing, it has the best overall experience. The library is quite large. Both the website and the mobile app are well built. The video quality is very good. The video player is really nice and the content delivery system is optimized for spotty connections. Videos start playing instantly. It's the "frustration free packaging" Amazon talks about 😉. And by the way, Prime Video has animes too! Need I say more? 😁

Hotstar

India's online streaming landscape really started shaping after Hotstar was launched. Let's start with the good bits. Hotstar has a polished website. It's nice and responsive. The mobile website is good too. Things are well organized into categories. The search is subpar though. Searching for an actor or actress doesn't yield the movies they have acted in. Hotstar's catalogue is quite big.

Screenshot of Hotstar's languages page
Hotstar's Library
Hotstar's biggest advantage is live sports broadcasting and its license to broadcast IPL; which is a big deal in India. It even has all the latest content from the Star network. And it's also the only platform where one can watch hit TV shows like the Game of Thrones, Ballers, Silicon Valley etc in India. And unlike Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar doesn't censor its content. The pricing is simple and affordable at ₹199 per month. Hotstar often collaborates with banks to offers discounts.

The biggest disadvantage of Hostar is its choice of video playback technology for its web app. Even though it's written with a relatively new technology, AngularJS, it still uses the crappy old Adobe Flash. And seemingly Hostar has chose to block playback on GNU/Linux systems. According to them it's because Adobe has ended support for Flash on GNU/Linux. This is just a straight up lie! Not only does Flash work on my Ubuntu system (works on Crunchyroll), but Adobe has also resumed support for GNU/Linux systems. But that's not the point. It's 2017, and nobody should be using Flash! It's a like plague on the web and I hate it. Sure the mobile app works well and all but one does not simply hold a phone for 2 and a half hours.

"One does not simply..." meme
Go ahead, try it
I have been pestering Hotstar to move to a better playback solution, but they don't seem to be bothered. But there's hope though. Now that Adobe has announced the end of life for Flash and the browser developers have also declared that Flash support will be completely removed in 2020, I do hope Hotstar will soon move away from Flash.

Now here's the question of the day: which Indian video streaming platform uses HTML5 video playback on its mobile website but uses Adobe Flash on its desktop website?

Hint: Wink wink 😉

There are other issues with Hotstar. Video resolution maxes out 720p which is unacceptable in 2017. Most of the pages on the website are transmitted over an HTTP connection; even the sign in page is served over an unsecure connection! This is just a security nightmare. Hotstar also doesn't have a watchlist to save shows and movies for later. The service doesn't save playback positions. You can not start watching a video on one device and resume it on an other. The video starts playing from the beginning on the second device. Even with all these drawbacks, the overall package brings a lot to the table.

Netflix

I was really excited when I heard the rumours of Netflix launching in India. I've been a no-piracy guy for a few years now. Video streaming services like Netflix are the only place I could watch shows and movies legally. But Netflix turned out to be a disappointment. Netflix is the least affordable video streaming service in India. The base pricing start at ₹500 per month! That too for SD quality videos! Are you kidding me Netflix? And honestly, who charges extra money for "extra screens"?! Netflix's catalogue in India is limited. But there are some gems though. And now that Disney plans to abandon the platform, the catalogue is going to shrink further. Netflix has also hiked its charges in several countries. If they try to do the same thing here in India, it'll be the end for 'em here.

Screenshot of Netflix's pricing page
Netflix Pricing
And that's not all, the web video player is one of the worst I have ever seen. It's not optimized for slow connections at all. Even with a 7 mbps Internet connection, I had trouble watching the videos. The most annoying part of Netflix is that the video player removes the previous segments of the video buffer. Meaning, if you try to rewind, those parts will be downloaded again. And the download was slow in the first place. The buffer size is really small and buffering stops the moment you hit pause. If that wasn't enough, I can't even download the Netflix app since they now use Widevine as their DRM technology. There ain't no way I'll pay Netflix for this pathetic service. There is a great article on Wired revealing everything Netflix did wrong in India. You can read it here.

Honorable Mentions

There are a few more streaming services like Sony Liv, Spuul, Eros Now, Hungama, Voot, Ozee etc. But in my opinion, none of  'em stand a chance against the big players. They suffer from limited catalog, confusing subscription model, ugly websites and old school mobile apps. Unless these services do something substantial, they are bound to be doomed.

After Thoughts

It's still too early to tell how things are going to evolve. The way I see it, in the next 10 years online streaming services and Internet TV providers will rule the market. And rightfully so. These services allow you to watch your favourite shows and movies on the device you want, at the time you want. Cable and satellite TV connections will presumably fade away. Now we need the service providers to add more content and keep the pricing affordable. Affordable pricing will hopefully reduce piracy in the country as well. But of course, we need these shows and movies to be made available unedited; the way they were meant to be enjoyed.

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