What is Divx?

Dec 25th, 2009 by dvdxplayer 3,114 views |Comments Off

Depending on whom you ask, Divx (Digital Video Express, first known as ZoomTV) was either an insidious evil scheme for greedy studios to control what you see in your own living room or an innovative approach to video rental that would have offered cheap discs you could get almost anywhere and keep for later viewings.

Developed by Circuit City and a Hollywood law firm, Divx was supported by Disney (Buena Vista), Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, MGM, and DreamWorks SKG, all of which also released discs in “open DVD” format, since the Divx agreement was non-exclusive. Harman/Kardon, JVC, Kenwood, Matsushita (Panasonic), Pioneer, Thomson (RCA/Proscan/GE), and Zenith announced Divx players, though some never came to market. (Divx models are Panasonic X410, Proscan PS8680Z, RCA RC5230Z and RC5231Z, and Zenith DVX2100.) The studios and hardware makers supporting Divx were given incentives in the form of guaranteed licensing payments totaling over $110 million. Divx discs were manufactured by Nimbus, Panasonic, and Pioneer. Circuit City lost over $114 million (after tax writeoffs) on Divx.

Divx was a pay-per-viewing-period variation of DVD. Divx discs sold for $4.50. Once inserted into a Divx player the disc would play normally (allowing the viewer to pause, rewind, even put in another disc before finishing the first disc) for the next 48 hours, after which the “owner” had to pay $3.25 to unlock it for another 48 hours. A Divx DVD player, which cost about $100 more than a regular player, had to be hooked up to a phone line so it could call an 800 number for about 20 seconds during the night once each month (or after playing 10 or so discs) to upload billing information. Most Divx discs could be converted to DivxSilver status by paying an additional fee (usually $20) to allow unlimited plays on a single account (as of Dec 1998, 85% of Divx discs were convertible). Unlimited-playback DivxGold discs were announced but never produced. Divx players can also play regular DVD discs, but Divx discs do not play in standard DVD players. Divx discs are serialized (with a barcode in the standard Burst Cutting Area) and in addition to normal DVD copy protection they employ watermarking of the video, modified channel modulation, and triple DES encryption (two 56-bit keys) of serial communications. Divx technology never worked on PCs, which undoubtedly contributed to its demise. Because of the DES encryption, Divx technology may not have been allowed outside the U.S.

Divx was originally announced for summer 1998 release. Limited trials began June 8, 1998 in San Francisco, CA and Richmond, VA. The only available player was from Zenith (which at the time was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy), and the promised 150 movies had dwindled to 14. The limited nationwide rollout (with one Zenith player model and 150 movies in 190 stores) began on September 25, 1998. By the end of 1998 about 87,000 Divx players (from four models available) and 535,000 Divx discs were sold (from about 300 titles available). The company apparently counted the five discs bundled with each player, which means 100,000 additional discs were sold. By March 1999, 420 Divx titles were available (compared to over 3,500 open DVD titles). All things considered, Divx players were selling well and titles were being produced with impressive speed.

On June 16, 1999, less than a year after initial product trials, Circuit City withdrew its support and Divx announced that it was closing down. Divx did not confuse or delay development of the DVD market nearly as much as many people predicted (including yours truly). In fact, it probably helped by stimulating Internet rental companies to provide better services and prices, by encouraging manufacturers to offer more free discs with player purchases, and by motivating studios to develop rental programs.

When it closed down, the company offered $100 rebate coupons to all owners of Divx players. This made the players a good deal, since they can play open DVDs just as well as other low-end players that cost more. On July 7th, 2001, Divx players dialed into the central billing computer, which decommissioned them. (Divx players not connected to phone lines have expired their playback allowance.) Divx discs are no longer playable in any players.

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