AT&T’s Screen Pack Is No Netflix Competitor, And We Shouldn’t Pretend That It Is

So AT&T announced at its developers conference at CES today that it will be launching a new service, called Screen Pack, that promises U-Verse subscribers access to unlimited streaming of a limited number of movies on tablets and other devices for $5 a month. It’s got people saying that with this new service, AT&T has “countered” the Netflix threat, that it’s going to “take on” Netflix, that it could be a $5 “Netflix competitor.”

So let’s get this out of the way. AT&T’s Screen Pack is not going to kill Netflix. It’s not going to compete with Netflix. It’s not going to take on Netflix. It’s merely going to exist alongside Netflix until AT&T gets bored of it, and either rolls it into its existing offering as a nice add-on, or decides to do away with it.

The same is true for Redbox’s “Netflix competitor,” which I took a look at yesterday. And Comcast’s “Netflix competitor,” Streampix, before that. Oh, and let’s not forget about Dish’s “stream come true,” that Blockbuster Movie Pass service that no one has heard about since launch.

What all of these services have in common is that they’re not Netflix. In the same way that Bing is not Google. In the same way that Google+ is not Facebook. In the same way that Facebook Places is not Foursquare, and that Foursquare Discover is not Yelp, and that Yelp Deals is not Groupon.

One could argue that all of those former services might be slowing growth or stealing share from the latter services. In come cases they might be. But it seems to me that in all of those examples, just being a big incumbent in an adjacent market launches a service similar to one that already exists is no guarantee of success. In fact, in most cases, those me-too services fail to meet expectations, eventually go stagnant, are then ignored by the companies who build them, and then, after some amount of time, are finally taken out to pasture.

I have no doubt that AT&T wants Screen Pack to be competitive with Netflix. And it’s probably going to invest significant resources to try and make it happen. The same is true for Redbox and Verizon, Comcast, Blockbuster, and whomever else might jump into this space. But just because they want their services to be Netflix competitors doesn’t make it so.

And we, as educated tech press who have seen this dozens — if not hundreds — of times before, should be smart enough to say so.