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Main article: Netflix

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Netflix acquires Adam McKay’s asteroid comedy ‘Don’t Look Up’, Jennifer Lawrence will star

00:21 | 20 February

Netflix announced today that it has acquired “Don’t Look Up,” a comedy written and directed by Adam McKay, with Jennifer Lawrence attached to star.

The story sounds like a funhouse reflection of one of today’s other headlines, focusing on two “low-level astronomers” who try to warn the world about the dangers of an asteroid that’s approaching Earth. Netflix has an aggressive timeline in place, with shooting scheduled to start in April, followed by a planned release later this year.

While McKay started his career as a “Saturday Night Live” writer and then the director of Will Ferrell comedies like “Anchorman” (he and Ferrell also co-founded Funny or Die), the focus of his recent work has shifted to business and politics. He wrote (or co-wrote) and directed “The Big Short” and “Vice,” and he’s also an executive producer and director on “Succession.”

It’s also worth noting that McKay and Lawrence have another project in development — a movie about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes that’s based on John Carreyrou’s book “Bad Blood.”

“I’m so thrilled to make this movie with Jen Lawrence,” McKay said. “She’s what folks in the 17th century used to call ‘a dynamite act’. And the fact that Netflix sees this movie as a worldwide comedy sets the bar high for me and my team in an exciting and motivating way.”

 


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Online learning marketplace Udemy raises $50M at a $2B valuation from Japanese publisher Benesse

15:00 | 19 February

The internet has, for better or worse, become the default platform for people seeking information, and today one of the companies leveraging that to deliver educational content has raised some funding to fuel its next stage of growth. Udemy, which provides a marketplace offering some 150,000 different online learning courses from business analytics through to ukulele lessons, has picked up $50 million from a single investor, Benesse Holdings, the Japan-based educational publisher that has been Udemy’s partner in the country. The investment values Udemy at $2 billion post-money, it said.

This is a big jump since the startup last raised money, a $60 million round in 2016 that valued it at around $710 million (according to PitchBook data). With this round, Udemay has raised around $130 million in funding.

The plan will be to use the funding to expand all of Udemy’s business, which includes a vast array of courses for consumers that can be purchased a la carte — to date used by some 50 million students; as well as enterprise services, where Udemy works with companies like Adidas, General Mills, Toyota, Wipro, Pinterest and Lyft and others — 5,000 in all — to develop and administer subscription-based professional development courses. Udemy’s president Darren Shimkus describes this as a “Netflix-style” model, where users are presented with a dashboard listing a range of courses that they can take on demand.

Udemy will also be looking at improving how courses are delivered, as well as consider new areas it might move into more deeply to fit what Shimkus described as the biggest challenge for the company, and for the global workforce overall:

“The biggest challenge is for learners is to figure out what skills are emerging, what they can do to compete best in the global market,” he said. “We’re in a world that’s changing so quickly that skills that were valued just three or four years ago are no longer relevant. People are confused and don’t know what they should be learning.” That’s a challenge that also stands for businesses, he added, which are trying to work out what he described as their “three to five year human capital roadmap.”

The investment will also include a specific boost for Udemy’s international operations, starting with Japan but extending also to other markets where Udemy has seen strong growth, such as Brazil and India.

“We’ve worked closely with Benesse for several years, and this investment is a testament to the strength of our relationship and the opportunity ahead of us,” said Gregg Coccari, CEO of Udemy, in a statement. “Udemy is on a mission to improve lives through learning, and so is Benesse. 2020 will be a milestone year where we serve millions more students and enable thousands of businesses and governments to upskill their employees. This growth wouldn’t be possible without our expert instructors who partner with us every step of the way as we build this business.”

Benesse’s business spans instructional materials for children through to courses for adults both online and in in-person training centers — one of the better-known brands that it owns is Berlitz, which operates both virtual courses as well as a network of physical schools — and Udemy has been developing content alongside Benesse both in Japanese as well as English, Shimkus said, targeting both consumer and business markets.

“Access to the latest workplace skills is crucial for success everywhere, including Japan; and Udemy is the world’s largest marketplace enabling professional transformation. With this partnership, we envision a world where more people can continue to learn continuously throughout their lives,” said Tamotsu Adachi, Representative Director, President and CEO of Benesse Holdings Inc., in a statement. “Udemy and Benesse are incredibly synergistic businesses. This investment is the next progression in our business relationship and demonstrates our confidence in what we can accomplish together.”

Udemy’s expansion comes at a time when online education overall has generally continued to grow, although not without bumps.

Among those that compete at least in part with it, Coursera last year announced a $103 million round of funding at a $1 billion+ valuation and made its first acquisition to expand how it teaches programming and other computer science subjects. And in Asia, Byju’s in India is now valued at $8 billion after a quick succession of large growth rounds. We’ve also heard that Age of Learning, which quietly raised at a $1 billion valuation in 2016, is also gearing up for another round.

On the other hand, not all is rosy. Another big name in online learning, Udacity (not to be confused with Udemy), laid off 20% of its workforce amid a larger restructuring; and further afield, Kano — which merges online learning with DIY hardware kits — has also laid off and restructured in recent months. Meanwhile, we don’t seem to hear much these days from LinkedIn Learning, another would-be competitor that was rebranded Lynda.com after it was acquired by the social networking site (itself owned by Microsoft).

Unlike Coursera and others that aim for full degrees that are potentially aiming to disrupt higher education, Udemy focuses on short courses, either simply for the student’s own interest, or potentially for certifications from organizations that either help administer the courses or “own” the subject in question (for example, Cisco for networking certifications, or Microsoft regarding one of its software packages, or the PMI for a course related to project management).

Those courses are delivered by individuals who form the other half of Udemy’s two-sided marketplace. In the 10 years that it’s been in business, Udemy has worked with some 57,000 instructors to develop courses, and in the marketplace model, Shimkus told TechCrunch that those instructors have been netted $350 million in payments to date. (He would not disclose Udemy’s cut on those courses, nor whether the company is currently profitable.)

The company has a lot of areas that it has yet to tackle that present opportunities for how it might evolve. Working with enterprises but with a large base of consumer usage, there is, for example, a lot of scope to develop more data analytics about what is used, what is popular, and how to tailor courses in a better way to fit those models to improve outcomes and engagement. Another area potentially could see Udemy moving deeper into specific subject areas like language learning, where it offers some courses today but has a lot of scope for growing, particularly leaning on what Benesse has with Berlitz. To date, Udemy has made no acquisitions, but that is also an area that Shimkus said could be an option.

 


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Netflix fends off new streaming rivals by way of Samsung partnership

20:06 | 13 February

As the streaming battles heat up, Netflix is hoping a new partnership with Samsung will help it fend off rivals. At Samsung’s Unpacked event this week, the mobile device maker announced a deal with Netflix that will bring exclusive bonus content associated with several Netflix original shows to its Galaxy smartphones in the months ahead. The partnership also allows Netflix to more deeply integrate its streaming service with Samsung devices.

The latter part of the partnership involving device integration is fairly standard. In Netflix’s case, Samsung will allow users to launch Netflix content by way of its voice assistant Bixby. Netflix will also deliver recommendations to Samsung users, and will be better integrated into specific Samsung mobile features, like search and its discovery platform, Samsung Daily.

It’s not unusual for Samsung to work with tech companies to offer tighter integration and distribution for their app. For example, Samsung and Spotify announced a formal partnership in 2018, which has since resulted in consumer-facing features like Spotify’s deep integration with the new Galaxy Buds+, Galaxy S20, and Galaxy Z Flip.

The new Netflix content partnership, on the other hand, is unique.

Though Netflix didn’t go so far as to announce original series or movies only available to Samsung users, it will offer bonus content to Samsung device owners that won’t be found elsewhere. This includes behind-the-scenes footage, companion stories, and other bonus content — much of it filmed by the Samsung Galaxy S20’s new camera, of course.

Initially, bonus content will be available for shows including “Narcos: Mexico,” “Sintonia,” “Elite,” and “Netflix is a Joke.” Netflix says more bonus content will become available in the future.

The two companies have a decade-long history relationship which has seen them working together on joint marketing campaigns and other advertising. However, they’ve not before done a content deal like this.

“The mission of this partnership [is] to make the Netflix viewing experience on Samsung mobile the absolute best it can be,” said Netflix CMO Jackie Lee-Joe, announcing the company’s plans at Samsung’s event. “This means that even more users can enjoy our best-in-class stories across all genres through even better product integration with Galaxy mobile devices,” she noted.

The partnership comes at a critical time for Netflix. Its subscriber growth in the U.S. has gone flat, even as its international growth is booming. More importantly, perhaps, is how Netflix is coming up against a whole host of new streaming competitors with money to burn — including Disney+, Apple TV+, WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, NBCU’s Peacock, and Quibi.

What’s worse is that these new streaming services already have ways to tightly integrate with mobile devices or have partnerships allowing them to distribute their service to millions.

For example, [TechCrunch parent] Verizon is offering its mobile subscribers a free year of Disney+. Jeffrey Katzenberg’s mobile streaming service Quibi is partnering with T-Mobile. NBCU owner Comcast has its own mobile network, Xfinity Mobile, and HBO Max hails from AT&T’s WarnerMedia. And Apple, for now, is just giving away Apple TV+ for free to anyone who buys a new iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV, or Mac.

That leaves Netflix without a competitive distribution strategy. And its only viable option to get similar global scale is Samsung, which had an 18.8% worldwide market share in Q4 2019 (in terms of shipments), compared with Apple’s 20%. Samsung also has solid distribution in key international markets where Netflix is seeing its strongest growth.

“We believe this significant partnership will provide millions of Samsung Mobile users across the globe the best mobile entertainment experience, and make discovering new stories around the world easier than ever,” said Lee-Joe.

 


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Netflix fishes for new subscribers in U.S. with free stream of ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’

21:00 | 12 February

Netflix is looking to get young adults hooked on its service by making its popular teenage rom-com, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” available to stream for free to everyone in the U.S., including non-subscribers. This isn’t the first time Netflix has offered free streaming — it teased Brits last year by offering an episode of “The Crown” for free, and has run similar tests in markets like India and parts of South America. But this is the first time it’s targeted the U.S. with such an offer.

The offer of a free Netflix movie comes at a critical time for the service.

The company has hit a wall in terms of subscriber growth in the U.S., even as it’s expanding worldwide. During last month’s earnings, Netflix missed its forecast for U.S. subscriber growth for the third straight quarter, with just 423,000 domestic subscriber additions. Meanwhile, it surpassed expectations overseas with 8.3 million subscribers added instead of the 7 million expected.

Netflix has downplayed the impact of new streaming services, like Disney+ and Apple TV+, on its U.S. growth. But in reality, Netflix will soon be one of many streaming options for U.S. consumers to choose from — HBO Max, NBCU’s Peacock and mobile-only Quibi are set to arrive this year, filling up an already crowded market.

In addition, Netflix’s slowing growth in the U.S. can also be attributed to, in part, continued price increases for a catalog that’s now more dependent than ever on Netflix’s original programming to keep subscribers hooked. And those originals haven’t always performed well. In Q2, for example, the company even singled out its weak content slate for driving fewer paid net adds than anticipated.

Beyond that, there’s also growing criticism that Netflix’s originals just aren’t as good as they used to be.

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” on the other hand, is more of an exception. While the film itself is a cute, if fairly conventional, high school romance story, it became one of Netflix’s “most viewed” original films to date. The movie, and other Netflix rom-coms like it, were watched by 80 million subscribers over the summer in 2018, the company also said. These films appeal to an underserved market — people hungry for lightweight romances at a time when the industry is delivering anything but.

By year-end 2018, Netflix had greenlit a sequel to its breakout hit. That movie, “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You,” has now arrived — making for a perfect time to promote the original.

Non-members are able to watch the free movie on the web now through March 9.

 

 


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Jam lets you safely share streaming app passwords

04:27 | 11 February

Can’t afford Netflix and HBO and Spotify and Disney+…? Now there’s an app specially built for giving pals your passwords while claiming to keep your credentials safe. It’s called Jam, and the questionably legal service launched in private beta this morning. Founder John Backus tells TechCrunch in his first interview about Jam that it will let users save login details with local encryption, add friends you can then authorize to access your password for a chosen service, and broadcast to friends which of your subscriptions have room for people to piggyback on.

Jam is just starting to add users off its rapidly growing waitlist that you can join here, but when users get access, it’s designed to stay free to use. In the future, Jam could build a business by helping friends split the costs of subscriptions. There’s clearly demand. Over 80% of 13-24 year olds have given out or used someone else’s online TV password, according a study by Hub of over 2000 US consumers.

“The need for Jam was obvious. I don’t want to find out my ex-girlfriend’s roommate has been using my account again. Everyone shares passwords, but for consumers there isn’t a secure way to do that. Why?” Backus asks. “In the enterprise world, team password managers reflect the reality that multiple people need to access the same account, regularly. Consumers don’t have the same kind of system, and that’s bad for security and coordination.”

Thankfully, Backus isn’t some amateur when it comes to security. The Stanford computer science dropout and Thiel Fellow founded identity verification startup Cognito and decentralized credit scoring app Bloom. “Working in crypto at Bloom and with sensitive data at Cognito, I have a lot of experience building secure products with cryptography at the core.

He also tells me since everything saved in Jam is locally encrypted, even he can’t see it and nothing would be exposed if the company was hacked. It uses similar protocols to 1Password, “Plaintext login information is never sent to our server, nor is your master password” and “we use pretty straightforward public key cryptography.” Remember, your friend could always try to hijack and lock you out, though. And while those protocols may be hardened, TechCrunch can’t verify they’re perfectly implemented and fully secure within Jam.

Whether facilitating password sharing is legal, and whether Netflix and its peers will send an army of lawyers to destroy Jam, remain open questions. We’ve reached out to several streaming companies for comment. When asked on Twitter about Jam helping users run afoul of their terms of service, Backus claims that “plenty of websites give you permission to share your account with others (with vary degrees of constraints) but users often don’t know these rules.” 

However, sharing is typically supposed to be amongst a customer’s own devices or within their household, or they’re supposed to pay for a family plan. We asked Netflix, Hulu, CBS, Disney, and Spotify for comment, and did not receive any on the record comments. However, Spotify’s terms of service specifically prohibit providing your password to any other person or using any other person’s username and password”. Netflix’s terms insist that “the Account Owner should maintain control over the Netflix ready devices that are used to access the service and not reveal the password or details of the Payment Method associated to the account to anyone.”

Some might see Jam as ripping off the original content creators, though Backus claims that “Jam isn’t trying to take money out of anyone’s pocket. Spotify offers [family plan sharing for people under the same roof]. Many other companies offer similar bundled plans. I think people just underutilize things like this and it’s totally fair game.”

Netflix’s Chief Product Officer said in October that the company is monitoring password sharing and it’s looking at “consumer-friendly ways to push on the edges of that.” Meanwhile, The Alliance For Creativity and Entertainment that includes Netflix, Disney, Amazon, Comcast, and major film studios announced that its members will collaborate to address “piracy” including “what facilitates unauthorized access, including improper password sharing and inadequate encryption.”

That could lead to expensive legal trouble for Jam. “My past startups have done well, so I’ve had the pleasure of self-funding Jam so far” Backus says. But if lawsuits emerge or the app gets popular, he might need to find outside investors. “I only launched about 5 hours ago, but I’ll just say that I’m already in the process of upgrading my database tier due to signup growth.”

Eventually, the goal is not to monetize not through a monthly subscription like Backus expects competitors including password-sharing browser extensions might charge. Instead “Jam will make money by helping users save money. We want to make it easy fo users to track what they’re sharing and with whom so that they can settle up the difference at the end of each month” Backus explains. It could charge “either a small fee in exchange for automatically settling debts between users and/or charging a percentage of the money we save users by recommending more efficient sharing setups.” Later, he sees a chance to provide recommendations for optimizing account management across networks of people while building native mobile apps.

“I think Jam is timed perfectly to line up with multiple different booming trends in how people are using the internet”, particularly younger people says Backus. Hub says 42% of all US consumers have used someone else’s online TV service password, while amongst 13 to 24 year olds, 69% have watched Netflix on someone else’s password. “When popularity and exclusivity are combined with often ambiguous, even sometimes nonexistent, rules about legitimate use, it’s almost an invitation to subscribers to share the enjoyment with friends and family” says Peter Fondulas, the principal at Hub and co-author of the study. “Wall Street has already made its displeasure clear, but in spite of that, password sharing is still very much alive and well.”

From that perspective, you could liken Jam to sex education. Password sharing abstinence has clearly failed. At least people should learn how to do it safely.

 


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Netflix’s movies only won two Oscars this year

07:32 | 10 February

Although Netflix received 24 nominations (the most of any studio) at this year’s Oscars, its films only ended up winning two awards.

Laura Dern was named Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing Nora, a flashy divorce attorney in “Marriage Story” — the only award that “Marriage Story” won from its six nominations.

And “The Irishman” came up empty-handed despite being nominated in 10 categories. Both films were nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, awards that ultimately went to the night’s big winner “Parasite.”

Netflix’s only other Oscar for the evening was for “American Factory,” which won the award for Best Documentary Feature. The film was the first to emerge from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production deal with Netflix. (Despite rumors to the contrary, the Obamas were not on-hand to accept the award.)

Last year, Netflix’s “Roma” won the awards for cinematography, foreign language film and director. There was some speculation that it might have beaten “Green Book” for Best Picture if it had been released by a traditional studio, but it had other disadvantages. For one thing, a foreign language film had never won the big award — until tonight, when “Parasite” emerged victorious.

And perhaps this would have been the year of “Parasite” regardless; it certainly deserved all the awards. Still, “The Irishman” seemed like Netflix’s biggest swing yet. It was made for a reported budget of $160 million, directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro back together on-screen. Maybe next year.

 


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Original Content podcast: Netflix’s Taylor Swift documentary feels like a guarded self-portrait

02:40 | 10 February

“Miss Americana,” a new Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift, is worth watching — if you go in with the right expectations.

At least, that’s according to two out of three hosts of the Original Content podcast. Darrell was the holdout; he didn’t hate the movie or think it was poorly made, but he’s much more skeptical about celebrity culture in general and argues that everyone would be better off ignoring celebrities altogether.

Your other hosts don’t go quite that far. Instead, we admit to a guarded admiration for Swift and her music, and we enjoyed “Miss Americana” as a window into Swift’s world. Not a completely transparent window — despite being directed by Lana Wilson, the film feels like it was guided by Swift’s perspective, focusing on her chosen themes of tabloid persecution and political awakening — but a revealing one nevertheless.

What comes across clearly is the utter insanity of the musician’s life, lived under intense (and often unfair) media scrutiny.

The film also demonstrates the extraordinary talent, ambition and luck that Swift must have needed to get where she is. And it boasts a few glimpses into her songwriting and recording process, and into what appears to have been an agonizing decision to endorse Democrat Phil Bredesen’s ultimately unsuccessful run for one of Tennessee’s Senate seats in 2018.

In addition to reviewing the film, we also discuss Netflix’s decision to make auto-play previews optional.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

And if you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down:

0:00 Intro
0:28 Netflix auto-play discussion
5:02 “Miss Americana” review

 


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Netflix makes autoplay previews optional

20:15 | 7 February

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Netflix’s horrible autoplay previews can be turned off

Netflix’s autoplay trailers are now optional. That’s it. That’s the news.

And here’s how to turn them off now: Click “Manage Profiles,” choose your profile, then untick “Autoplay previews while browsing on all devices.”

2. Instagram prototypes letting IGTV creators monetize with ads

Instagram confirmed to TechCrunch that it has internally prototyped an Instagram Partner Program that would let creators earn money by showing advertisements along with their videos. By giving creators a sustainable and hands-off way to generate earnings from IGTV, those creators might be inspired to bring more and higher-quality content to the service.

3. Carta debuts fund to invest in startups that tap into its platform

Carta has created an investing vehicle called Carta Ventures. The well-funded unicorn hopes to foster an ecosystem around its core products and services.

4. SoftBank-backed Fair puts the brakes on weekly car rentals for Uber drivers

When Fair laid off 40% of its staff in October, CEO Scott Painter promised it wasn’t shuttering its leasing services to on-demand fleets. But just one week later, Painter was removed as CEO and replaced in the interim by Adam Hieber, a CFA from Fair investor SoftBank.

5. Is your startup using AI responsibly?

Since they started leveraging the technology, tech companies have received numerous accusations regarding the unethical use of artificial intelligence. Gramener’s Ganes Kesari says that to address the issue, fixing the model is not enough. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. NASA panel recommends Boeing software process reviews after revealing second Starliner issue

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is recommending that Boeing’s software testing processes undergo a review, following the discovery of another problem with the on-board system that was in operation during the CST-100 Starliner uncrewed Space Station docking test launch in December.

7. Motorola embraces the stylus life on its budget G series

This morning, at an event in Chicago, Motorola introduced two new entries into the G line: the Moto G Power and Moto G Stylus, which will run $300 and $250, respectively.

 


0

Netflix’s horrible autoplay previews can be turned off

23:23 | 6 February

Listen, this week sucks. Last week pretty much sucked, too. Honestly, it’s probably time to just scrap this stupid jerk of a year and give 2021 a go. (Spoiler: that one will suck, too). But you take your victories where you can get them, and Netflix just handed us a beautiful one for once in our sad, miserable lives.

Autoplay trailers are now option. That’s it. That’s the news. The short but horrible tyranny of autoplay previews are at an end.

Here, do this now:

  1. Click Manage Profiles
  2. Choose your profile
  3. Untick “Autoplay previews while browsing on all devices.
  4. Now live, damnit! Live!

Scroll free, friends. 

 


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Netflix begins streaming in AV1 on Android

22:19 | 6 February

Netflix announced this week that it has started to stream titles in AV1 on Android in what could significantly help the two-year-old media codec gain wider adoption.

The world’s biggest streaming giant said on Wednesday that by switching from Google’s VP9 — which it previously used on Android — to AV1, its compression efficiency has gone up by 20%.

At the moment, only “select titles” are available to stream in AV1 for subscribers “who wish to reduce their cellular data usage by enabling the ‘Save Data’ feature,” the American firm said.

Netflix hasn’t shared much about the benefit AV1 will provide to customers, but the new media codec’s acceptance nonetheless sends a message by itself.

Tech giants, including Google, have spent years developing and improving media codecs as consumption of data skyrocketed and low-cost devices began to sell like hotcakes. But they just can’t seem to settle on one media codec and universally support it.

Think of Safari and YouTube, for instance. You can’t stream YouTube videos in 4K resolution on Safari, because Apple’s browser does not support Google’s VP9. And Google does not support HEVC for 4K videos on YouTube.

AV1 is supposed to be the savior media codec that gets universal support. It’s royalty-free and it works atop of open-source dav1d decoder that has been built by VideoLAN, best known for its widely popular media player VLC and FFmpeg communities. It is sponsored by the Alliance for Open Media.

Who are the members of Alliance for Open Media? Nearly all the big guys: Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Nvidia, ARM, Facebook, Microsoft, Mozilla, Samsung and Tencent, among others.

But that’s not to say there aren’t roadblocks in the adoption of AV1. Compared to HEVC — the format that AV1 is supposed to replace in popularity — encoding in AV1 was noticeably slower a year ago, as per some benchmark tests.

Adoption of AV1 by various browsers, according to analytics firm StatCounter. Safari is yet to support it.

Netflix’s announcement suggests that things have improved. The streaming giant said its goal is to support AV1 on all of its platforms. “In the spirit of making AV1 widely available, we are sponsoring an open-source effort to optimize 10-bit performance further and make these gains available to all,” it said in a blog post.

 


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