All of a sudden, Netflix (NFLX on the Nasdaq) is a hot stock again, the company reporting it now has won over almost as many customers as it lost in 2011 when it jacked up its prices and tried to make a rocky transition from DVD movies to streamed video on demand.
Netflix? A success story again? Who'd have guessed?
Not many on Wall Street, apparently. Netflix stock climbed more than 20 percent today from Wednesday's close. After the bell the company reported it made $40.7 million, or 73 cents per share, in the final three months of last year. That's down from the year before -- but much better than the 54 cents per share that analysts polled by FactSet had forecast.
But this is only partly a business story. The bigger question is whether Netflix is successfully moving from one technology to another -- a transition at which few companies excel. Apple has successfully moved from personal computers to iPhones and iPads, but it's a notable exception to the general pattern. Kodak, which all but invented digital cameras, famously stumbled as it tried to move on from film to digital.
So how's Netflix doing?
"Yes, they are managing the transition," said Edward Williams of BMO Capital Markets. "They're taking the right steps to move there."
But for now, Williams said Netflix may just be a so-called momentum stock that lost its appeal and is regaining it. From July to December 2011 it dropped from $300 per share to $67. Today it came back to close at $116.01.
Last fall, Netflix conceded that more than 800,000 customers had quit as it tried to get them to stream video instead of ordering DVDs sent through the mail. Now, it says, at least 600,000 people have either rejoined or signed up for the first time -- and fewer of them are waiting for those famous red Netflix envelopes.
"We moved too quickly," CEO Reed Hastings said in an interview with ABC News in September. "We didn't give it enough thought. We didn't give it enough explanation, enough integration, and you know, that's legitimately caused our customers to be angry."
Now, though he is still trying to be contrite, he has stopped eating his words.
"The global opportunity for streaming TV shows and movies becomes more compelling every year with the rise of smart TVs and faster broadband," said Hastings and Chief Financial Officer David Wells in the company's letter to shareholders. "With our streaming growth, Netflix is leading the development of Internet TV."
Rob Enderle, a California-based technology consultant, was less charitable:
"They nearly killed the firm, and had there been stronger competitive alternatives, they likely would have," he said in an email. "They did something incredibly stupid and got lucky this time. I wouldn't bet on that happening again."
The battle is far from over. Williams said Netflix has competition from online video offered by Amazon and Hulu, and cable TV companies could be an even bigger threat. But he said Netflix had to move away from DVDs by mail.
"The DVD business is ultimately going to go away," he said. "I don't think it's imminent ... but it will be in a perpetual state of decline."
In the meantime, Netflix depends on its relationship with its subscribers, and only they can really say how the company is doing. If you're a Netflix customer who quit last year, did you come back? Or did you stay? Or are you still fed up with them?