Interview with Netflix product chief Neil Hunt (video)

12 Jan 2012

Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt

Netflix chief product officer Neil Hunt describes to John Kennedy the secret sauce that makes the streaming giant’s service run smoothly and how Moore’s Law is still on the money.

Netflix, which launched in the UK and Ireland earlier this week, is understood to be responsible for 35pc of the web traffic in the US and can stream to more than 700 different technology devices, from TVs and smartphones to tablets and gaming consoles.

The man responsible for making all of this run smoothly is Neil Hunt, who has been with Netflix since the early days. Hunt also sits on the board of directors of hardware giant Logitech.

Hunt says the key to making Netflix hum smoothly on anything from Android smartphones to the iPad and today’s smart TVs is its software development kit (SDK).

“We’ve built an SDK that can be included in games, smart TV adapters, and that SDK is relatively easy to field and deploy. One of the secrets is the user interface, which is written in dynamic HTML 5.

Netflix’s chief product officer Neil Hunt talks about R&D and keeping on top of connected devices  

“The advantage of this is that even though firmware may not update, we can update the app on a weekly, monthly or six-monthly basis. A lot of thought and work has gone into how we provide the environment for click-and-watch streaming.”

Netflix began its streaming odyssey in 2007, when it first fielded instant streaming technology. “We learned a lot since then. What it is doing is starting with a relatively low bitrate and within a second or two shifting to higher resolution of 1080p high-def with 5.1 surround sound.”

Moore’s Law holds true

He adds the company has mastered how data is delivered so that bits are only traversing the last few miles of fibre and cable to get to a TV or PC.

Looking to the future, Hunt says there is room for a lot of growth in terms of infrastructure and devices and that Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s famous Moore’s Law is keeping pace with the rate of technological development in terms of devices.

“I find that Moore’s Law still holds in terms of the components for delivering content to the home via cables and routers. When I plot back to my first 110 baud modem in 1984 to the 15Mbps or 20Mbps I have today, it’s just about doubling every 18 months, exactly as Gordon Moore proposed a long time ago.

“I’m confident that over the next few years we will be seeing the doubling of capacity to a point where soon multiple hi-definition streams will be quite feasible.”

I venture that it must be quite a challenge keeping up with the advances in technology and ask Hunt how he manages R&D resources.

“There are three teams. The first team focuses on services and security. The second team focuses on discovery, intelligence and social recommendations.

“The third chunk is focused on the devices, making sure that no matter what way you choose to get Netflix, we deliver the best picture and sound to you regardless of what the conditions are on the network.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years