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July 09, 2006

My Geniotic Netflix Idea

geniotic, adj.: refers to something that is precisely balanced on the fine line between genius and idiocy, such that it is impossible to tell which side it belongs on.

We subscribed to Netflix a while ago and I've been watching movies while running on the treadmill. The problem is that I run 3 days a week and if I finish a movie Monday morning and then mail it back during the day on Monday, I don't get the next movie until Wednesday. This is incredible turnaround time but it does mean that I won't have the next movie when I run again Wednesday morning.

It would be great if Netflix could know that I had mailed the movie back on Monday and send out the replacement the same day, so I would receive it on Tuesday. They could have an honor system where I could "promise" that I had sent the movie back on Monday, but any "the DVD is in the mail" system would break down, not so much from dishonesty as from people just not actually getting around to mailing back the DVD they thought they were going to (even though Netflix makes it trivial to send it back since they give you a postage-paid mailer).

So what I thought of is this: on the outside of the return envelope, Netflix prints a bar code or other computer-readable image which uniquely identifies it as your specific copy of the DVD. Then, with your camera phone, you take a picture of the outside of the package in such a way that they know you are committed to mail it. At first I though it could be a picture of a postal worker holding it, but that might disgruntle them more. So instead the post office could install mailboxes where the item to be mailed first went into an intermediate area with a glass window, from which the only path out was into the real mailbox (think of the farebox on a typical city bus as a rough idea). You would put the letter in the intermediate area, take a picture, then push the lever to drop it into the real mailbox. Now the picture shows that you really are going to mail the DVD back. You send the picture to Netflix which uses scanning software to automatically read the barcode/whatever and figure out that it was your movie being returned. Then, they can send out the next one immediately.

You could extend the idea by having the magic mailbox in the post office also have a scannable code on it, so it would identify the post office it was mailed from (and perhaps the date, etc). Because it's not just Netflix; there are lots of times you want proof of mailing, such as sending in your taxes.

OK, that's the idea. Remember, every time it works, I get a quarter.

P.S. It turns out that geniotic is actually already in use, merely indicating genius. I like my definition better.

Posted by AdamBa at July 9, 2006 10:35 PM

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Netflix worked this way years ago. You could go to their site and click "I have returned this movie" and they would go ahead and send you the next one.

Maybe they just needed the magic mailbox!

Posted by: Michael Geary at July 9, 2006 11:44 PM

Yes like the above poster that is how they used to work, it was amazing, but nowadays they don't do it. I heard that they do have scanners at some mailing facilities, i am not sure where i heard this but it was somewhere, you know out there. It is sad, i just sent them email asking to bring back this service/feature last week, it is such a small world.

I am sure you have heard of the contraversy relating to they don't mail movies out as fast as they can, they hold back if you are a long-time subscriber, but if your a new-account they send them out as fast as possible. this is a newbie ranking system, maybe i should just cancel and open my account every 2 weeks to keep them on their toes. Luckily they have a disribution center in Tacoma, so up here in the NW the wait time is a little less as long as the movie is in that distribution center.

Here is another great idea, find a way of having the movies go peer-to-peer instead through netflix, that sounds like a more geniotic idea then yours, cause you could get real foul ups if it is broken, plus you would have to invent and design a "re-sealable" and "re-addressable" envelope, think of the repercussions, and not to mention the privacy issues. ok my copy of X goes to Y who is living in texas, and you would have to know their address, it is too much work and probably not as efficient unless you restrict it to geographic region.

problems aside, this is a very familiar topic where you send paper-backs all around the world, i remember it was a community of shareing paper back books through the mail, only you could do this with DVD's when the costs go down, maybe in 20 years they will start doing that.

Posted by: Netflix man at July 10, 2006 10:43 AM

Or they could allow you to lend 2 DVDs so you can schedule watching and mailing...

Posted by: Ivan at July 10, 2006 12:35 PM

I subscribe to Zip.ca, a Canadian equivalent to Netflix. They are still doing what you describe, and it works entirely on the honour system, as long as you have been a subscriber for a few months and you don't abuse it. Maybe Netflix had too many abusers.

Posted by: Chris L at July 10, 2006 12:44 PM

I use Blockbuster online, because every month you get 2 in store rentals included in the plan. I read somewhere that they have a deal with the Post Officee where it gets scanned and the information send to Blockbuster so they can mail the next. For me, that doesn't happen, but then I'm not surprised.

Posted by: Brian at July 10, 2006 01:41 PM

Ivan, Netflix actually allows you to check out 3 movies at once so normally you could overlap (unless you hit the Netflix slowdown). I should have clarified that we are sharing one Netflix subscription among the family so I have one queue for myself and the other 2 rental slots are used by my wife and kids. Netflix handles this well where I have my own queue and my returns trigger the next movie from that queue.

Brian, it did occur to me that someone is probably trying to make this work with a heavy technology solution (scanners in the post office etc). My idea was to make it sort of low-tech (if you can describe using a cell phone to take a picture and email it as low-tech these days) where there is no heavy infrastructure in place connecting back to Netflix (or Blockbuster etc).

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at July 10, 2006 03:31 PM

On the gaming side of things GameFly does this with their games. This is called "FastReturn" which is a partnership that they have with USPS. Once the post office gets it scanned in they will send you the next game in your que. Of course they do not have the speed of Netflix in actually getting the next game to you but at least you know it is on its way.

Posted by: Aaron at July 10, 2006 06:01 PM

Well, the peer to peer thing could easily protect privacy. But what we really need is a smart Postal Service. Imagine a USPS that worked on a service model and that adopted smart scanners that would read the barcode and take the necessary routing steps. They would get this from reading web services at the company sponsoring the mail.

So with Netflix, they prop a web service that takes in the barcode, decides what to do with it (send it from me to Bob in Texas, send it back to distro center, etc.) and slaps the appropriate label on it. They'd have to adopt some better packaging...easy enough. This smart scanning would also speed the process of me getting a new movie because Netflix would know sooner that they had "received" their movie. It's all about web services. Who's on board...let's go do it. :-)

Posted by: Che at July 11, 2006 12:27 AM

I used to subscribe to Netflix's service. I cancelled it because I thought I was not getting enough value. For about the same price per month I can go to Hollywood Video and buy 3-5 previously viewed DVDs for about the same price as a monthly subscription. It is a little more (depending on the current inventory level and how desperate they are to get rid of them) but I do get to keep the movies and I never have to return them. :)

Posted by: Phil at July 11, 2006 06:00 AM