Commentary - "Divx and the Future of Home Theater" - October, 1997

By Stacey Spears


Pardon me while I step up on my soapbox.

What's the deal with Divx?

Divx is a new pay-per-view (PPV) version of DVD that is being brought to you by Digital Video Express, Circuit City, and the Los Angeles entertainment law firm of Ziffren, Brittenham, Branca & Fischer. The plan is to have us purchase the disc for under $5.00, and for a 48 hour period we can watch it as much as we want. After the 48 hours are up, if we want to watch the movie again, we will have to pay to unlock it for another 48 hours. Not all the facts are in at this time; the big news will come from the Winter CES in Vegas. You can be sure we will have all the details in our CES report. Until then you will have to wade through all the rumors and speculations. The purpose of this commentary is to make sure all our readers know what Divx is and what may happen.

A recent poll on E-Town stated that 96.8% percent of responders say NO to Divx. The public, who mostly are not on the Net, have no idea that Divx is coming. Divx will start showing up in the next few issues of various printed magazines. If you want to know what people on the Net think about Divx, head over to the Usenet group, and there you will see a lot of venting. Stay tuned to Secrets as well; you will know as soon as we do.

Why a PPV DVD format? That is what I keep asking myself, and as of today, I still do not have a good answer. Thousands of DVD players have been sold and, next summer should Divx survive, they will be less useful should any studio choose to release only the Divx versions of their films. You have to admit that DVD has not had an easy life so far, but it has heart! A big thank you goes out to Warner Brothers for standing behind it. MGM, New line, Simitar, Polygram, and Columbia are also supporting it, but not with the same force as Warner. Simitar is releasing quite a bit, although it is not mainstream stuff. Universal and Disney have also signed on, but 4 - 10 titles are really just a drop in the video bucket.

One of the Divx selling points is supposed to be that consumers do not like the worry of returning a rented video back to the store. The way I see it, if people are so lazy that they do not want to take the time to return the video, why would they even bother going and renting one in the first place? With DSS and cable, you do not even have to leave your home to enjoy PPV.

I recently read a Usenet post that brought up a very valid issue. Let's take for example the popular home video releases of animation films. Tons of money are made on the sales, but once the film is sold to a family, they can watch it 1000 times if they want (the kids run them over and over and over, as any of you with children know). Suppose that family movie were on a Divx DVD. Money could be made over and over and over, each time the kids plunk the disc in the player. Of course this is just speculation, and proponents of Divx are claiming that you can purchase the movie outright for around $25. At this time no one really knows all the facts.

I am usually one who welcomes new technology; bring it on, I say. But now that DVD is here, what kind of improvement does Divx offer? Well, none that I am aware of. It doesn't offer anything that is not already available by DVD (except more potential cash to the studios). It is not HDTV, which is still a horizon event. Studios have held out on DVD because of the copy protection issue, and I can understand their concerns, but there is no copy protection on the planet that cannot be cracked. Things like macrovision only deter the average consumer, who is honest. Pirates will always be able to make copies. If you look in the back of most video magazines, you will see ads for devices that eliminate macrovision. I am sure that new versions of these little black boxes to copy DVDs will be out shortly. Studios are naive to think that some super protection scheme will do anything but make mass consumers angry and invite pirates to bust up their little party.

Here is how Divx will work. You buy a special Divx DVD player that will retail for $100 more than the current DVD players. You will be required to hook it up to a phone line that will be used to bill you. When you buy a Divx DVD and put it in your player, it is only good on that one player. What if you want to take it over to a friend's house? You have to buy it again over the phone lines. I can already envision the little black boxes that will plug in to the phone jack on these Divx players and allow unlimited use. So, who will benefit the most from Divx? Pirates of course! They will be able to get their source material for under $5.

Currently Disney, Paramount, Universal, Dream Works SKG, and Viacom Inc. have all signed up for Divx. Paramount has specifically held out on DVD because of Divx. Do you remember a couple of years ago when CD-I was announced? Well, before it even hit the stores, everyone knew how bad it was. It had no future, yet Paramount provided LOTS of software for it and lost big time. Not since CD-I has there been so much negative talk about a new product. Like the old saying goes, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it."

Zenith, Thomson, and Matsushita have all said they will provide Divx DVD players. Panasonic, whose parent company is Matsushita, just announced their second generation DVD player, and guess what, it does not support Divx. What gives? They plan on providing a Divx player, yet these players are not scheduled to come out until summer of '98. Why are they introducing the conventional DVD players now? Because DVD players sell.

Sony and Toshiba have, at this time, said they have no plans on selling a Divx DVD player. Of course if Divx were a complete success, they probably would join in (can't blame them). The same goes for Columbia, Tri-Star, and Warner.

My personal DVD collection is up to about 70 discs now. I keep adding to it every week and will continue to do so. Am I going to wait for Divx? NO, I have no plans to support Divx at this time, and if those discs will not work in my current player, then I WILL NOT BUY them. I also plan on investing in a high-end DVD player down the road like the Meridian or Faroudja. Do you think the people who purchase these players are going to welcome Divx? Think again.

Remember that the studios' income depends on the consumer, and as consumers, you should know what the studios are planning. Let them know what you think. Let us know too, and we will post a concensus. I don't blame any of the companies involved with Divx for wanting ideas to bring in more revenues. However . . . Memo To the Studios: Sell us the movies, rent us the movies, but don't tempt fate with a potential disaster. Divx is just a bad idea.

Stacey Spears

Copyright 1997, Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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