Apple, Amazon, and Blockbuster are hot on Netflix’ trail. Result: The company’s stock price is down more than 12 percent since Jan. 1. Now the company is looking to turn the tide with a plan to deliver movies and television shows via streaming video free to Netflix subscribers (Windows/IE only for now).

Beware of the supposedly seemless installation process though.

First-time users of the service must download a special piece of software, which, if all goes well, also takes only a few seconds. (When a reporter tried the system at home, however, the process stalled because of a mismatch between the version of Microsoft’s antipiracy software expected by the Netflix viewer and the one loaded in the PC, and it took about 15 minutes to fix the problem with the help of a customer-support specialist. A Netflix spokesman said the problem was known, but occurred only rarely.)

Not exactly the sort of thing you want to see in an article on your exciting new product launch. And it’s not the first time the Netflix PR machine has misfired. CEO Reed Hastings had an embarrassing moment during his recent 60 minutes profile when he was unable to find his own company’s support number on his site.

The “60 Minutes” report introduced us to a couple in Northern Maine – Bob and Bobbi Henkel – who are big fans of the service, but who had a few problems along the way with delivery of their discs. They wanted to call to express their frustration, but couldn’t find a phone number for Netflix anywhere on the site.

When correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Hastings about that, he responded, “I’ll show you that here,” and then clicked on the site which was already open on his laptop.

And then he clicked. And clicked again. And again.

He couldn’t find it. “Ah… how do I contact customer service?” he asked, answering his own question by saying “Okay, it’s all by e-mail.”

A support number, 888-Netflix, was added soon after.

Another interesting bit from the launch article: Blockbuster’s online rental service is taking off.

With aggressive promotion of a new service called Total Access, which costs the same as Netflix’s service for three movies, and allows subscribers to exchange movies in stores, Blockbuster has added a staggering 700,000 subscribers since Nov. 1…“I wouldn’t be surprised to see our online subscribers double by the end of 2007,” John F. Antioco, the chief executive of Blockbuster, said.

Also, Netflix’ plan will be a pay-per-minute offer so users can test drive a movie.

Mr. Hastings said he chose the instant delivery afforded by streaming technology over downloads, which can take a while, because it would encourage subscribers to use the system to browse the catalog and discover new movies. If they do not like a movie, they can stop it and will be charged only for the minutes they actually watched.

If this model takes off, could it have an impact on how movies are actually structured? Will we see fewer slow-developing plots and more explosion-filled intros?

Related: Netflix nails it