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Amazon.com (AMZN-Q) rolled out a streaming TV and movie service for its prime customers, taking a direct shot at fast growing rival Netflix (NFLX-Q).
Amazon announced today that its customers, who pay $79 US a year for free two-day shipping, can choose among 5,000 TV shows and movies such as "Syriana," "Doctor Who: Season 4," and "Analyze This" to stream through computers and devices such as Roku. The streaming video service is available to prime members at no additional cost.
"We've have said for a long time that we expect someone to compete with Netflix," said Netflix spokesman Steve Swasey. "When you have a big growing category it attracts competition."
The move ramps up the battle among Netflix, Apple, Google and Microsoft, which are all vying to control the living room by letting consumers watch TV shows and movies directly from the Internet to TV sets and other devices like tablet computers.
At the same time, these companies are trying to woo media conglomerates such as Time Warner Inc., Walt Disney, News Corp., Viacom and CBS for their TV shows and movies.
Media companies so far are cautious about allowing their content for use on these types of services because they compete with cable operators that pay a premium to carry TV and movies. The fear is that people will drop pricey cable subscriptions, known in the industry as "cord cutting," in exchange for streaming video offered by Netflix or Amazon for instance.
Amazon also offers "Instant Video," a digital video service that offers customers more than 90,000 movies and TV shows to buy or rent on an a la carte basis.
"This offering from Amazon will not likely cause much of an exodus (if at all) from Netflix in the beginning," wrote Macquarie analyst Ben Schachter in a note to Amazon investors. "This is a nice free additional service and should reinforce for Prime members what they love about Amazon."
Netflix, traditionally associated with delivering its customers movies and TV shows through the mail in bright red envelopes, is shifting toward streaming video.
Netflix total subscriber base now stands at 20 million and it said that a vast majority of its U.S. subscribers stream content on a range of devices. Recently, it launched a streaming-only subscription plan in the U.S. for $7.99 a month for more than 20,000 movies and TV shows.
The relationship between Netflix and Amazon is a complex one: Netflix also relies on Amazon for its web hosting services. Netflix said in a recent government filing that it runs the majority of its computing through Amazon Web Service and warned that any disruption of that service would impact operations.
“While the retail side of Amazon may compete with us, we do not believe that Amazon will use the AWS operation in such a manner as to gain competitive advantage against our service," Netflix said in the filing.