THEN AND NOW

Early images of Netflix.com show how far the service has come in its 20 years

Obsession
Glass
Obsession
Glass

Would you believe Netflix is 20 years old? While the web-video giant is known for streaming video now, it first launched on April 14, 1998 as an online-video store shipping DVDs in the mail in red envelopes.

The first screen grab of Netflix.com captured by the Internet Archive was from Jan. 17, 1999, about 9 months after the site debuted. Netflix hadn’t rolled out its subscription model yet and was renting DVD by mail for a few bucks a piece, plus shipping. It introduced subscriptions later that year, offering four DVDs per month for a flat, $15.95 monthly fee. It boasted more than 2,600 titles in 1999. In 2017, it had more than 5,500 TV shows and movies in the US, one of the more than 190 countries it’s available in.

Its recommendations, now powered by algorithms, were curated by staffers then. Collections of movies grouped by common themes included Complicated Couples, Serious Spy Action, High-Tech Horrors, and Bad People, Great Movies—precursors to the remarkably specific personalized rows of categories now featured on Netflix. The 1998 film The Avengers, starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery, was described as “Stylish Action.” And there was a column, called “Ask Mr. DVD,” that talked movies, titles to rent, and fielded questions reflecting the times such as, “I’ve just jumped into this DVD thing, and I’m treading water, but that’s about all. What about IMAX? Do I need any special equipment to enjoy the benefits of it?”

The site even plugged DVDs for sale by now-competitor Amazon in those early days. How far Netflix has come.

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