The Lasting Legacy of the DIVX Disc

Created by will on Jan. 27, 2014, 6:19 p.m. Last post by bertfw 2 months, 1 week ago.

Do you remember the DIVX disc? DIVX, not to be confused with the video codec DivX, was a movie rental scheme that Circuit City and some law firm cooked up to try and disrupt the video rental market five years before Netflix existed.

For $4 or $5, you could buy a movie on a DIVX disc at Circuit City, Good Guys, Futureshop, or another retailer, then take it home to watch it in a special DIVX player. The player would connect to the Internet using a dial-up phone line and authorize your player to watch that movie for a short period of time. You could watch the movie as many times as you wanted during that window, but once your time was up, you'd have to "rent" the movie again for a few more bucks.

Photo credit: Flickr user weirdo513 via Creative Commons, from PAX East 2011.

Sound familiar?

DIVX ultimately failed, likely because of the upfront cost and quality issues with the actual films. To play the discs, you had to buy a player that cost $100-150 more than a DVD-only player, and you had to run a dedicated phone line to the box. Most DIVX versions of movies were lower quality than their DVD counterparts. The DIVX discs usually contained cropped pan-and-scan version of the film, rather than the anamorphic widescreen that was becoming common on DVDs. The discs also lacked extra features--they didn't contain making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, or audio commentaries.

People also had privacy and ecological concerns with the format. We feared that the DIVX player would spy on their behavior, uploading their disc viewing activities during its regular calls into the DIVX mothership. There were also concerns about the wastefulness of a disc-based format designed for single viewing. After the rental period expired, the discs were essentially worthless, and people were concerned that if DIVX succeeded, our landfills would end up filled with one-use plastic discs with copies of Speed 2: Cruise Control and Enemy of the State.

Photo courtesy eBay user imodify.

So if DIVX was such a bad idea, why am I talking about it today? It started with this Twitter post, from Dave Pell. Dave, who is responsible for the excellent Next Draft newsletter, is one of many people who have complained about the hidden catch of the 24-hour time limit. His complaint is that when he starts watching a film on a weeknight evening, if he doesn't finish it during that sitting, he won't have a chance to come back to it until the 24-hour rental period has expired. Unless he pays another $6, he'll never see the nail-biting conclusion to The Adjustment Bureau. I wanted to find the origin of the 24-hour rental window, as it exists on iTunes, Amazon's Instant Video, the Google Play store, Microsoft's Xbox Video, and pretty much every other on-demand video rental service I've seen*.

All of the major online video rental stores today have less favorable terms than DIVX did when it failed because it wasn't "consumer friendly"

After digging a bit, the first service I've been able to find that had a similar, DRM-imposed time limit was... you guessed it... DIVX. Ironically, the DIVX format didn't have the 24-hour problem because DIVX actually gave you 48 hours to complete your movie after you first started watching it.

That's right. All of the major online video rental stores today have less favorable terms than DIVX did when it failed because it wasn't "consumer friendly". The online stores limit you to a 24-hour viewing window, their Terms of Service explicitly state that they're going to track your viewing habits (albeit in a way that doesn't directly identify you). And, rentals still don't include the bonus features that are available on most DVD and Blu-ray releases. In fairness, most rentals I've tried do display in the proper aspect ratio, although they all charge a buck or two more for HD resolutions. While the iTunes store hasn't resulted in millions of discs ending up in the landfill, we aren't sure what the environmental impact of all these server farms is.

It's only a matter of time before some scrappy upstart rolls out a service that offers rentals with friendlier terms, you know, like Blockbuster's three-day rental window.

* Except in Europe and Australia, where the iTunes rental window is 48-hours.

  • @will: iTunes rental window is 48 hours in Australia as well.

    However the thing about being watched or tracked only tends to upset the majority of people when it's coupled with the pain of expensive devices, services, or complexity of use.

    My Apple TV is a pretty darned simple device to use, same as the Chromecast is. I'm well aware that they watch my viewing habits, but it's the simplicity of use is what makes me accept the tradeoff.

  • I remember hating DIVX back in the day. For many of the same reasons, it's why I may be the rare person who has never rented a digital movie and have no foreseeable plans to do so.

    Yet millions of others are quite happy with it, so guess it works out for the parties involved.

  • DivX was a physical product too!? I had no idea. I just knew about the codec.

    Like many services it looks bad in retrospect. DivX was just ahead of its time.

  • I wish services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and iTunes would offer a premium tier for streaming first-run movies. I (and others) would pay more per month for on-demand access to movies that last for more than 24 hours.
  • I guess living in the stix has finally paid off for once.

    Because I have never heard of DIVX discs (or the player) until now...

  • I think the big difference between DIVX and things like Amazon Instant Video rentals is that DIVX was a physical product, which created a certain psychological tension. Renting a video that only "exists" as software uploaded to and then rescinded from my TiVo annoys me less, for I'm sure purely irrational reasons, than the idea of buying a DVD, having to dedicate shelf space to it, and then not being able to rewatch it later without interacting with and giving money to some service again. It's like having a book on my shelf and having to pay someone if I want to re-read it - they're negating the main advantage of having a library in the first place, as opposed to just renting content on demand.

    The DIVX concept sort of reminds me of condominium living, which elegantly combines the downsides of renting an apartment with the downsides of owning a house. It just got the whole idea backward.

  • I think several of the movies I've rented using Xfinity On-Demand have been 48 hour rentals, one thing Comcast actually does right, some of the time.

  • Was the Futureshop reference for us Canadians or did it exist in the US as well at one point? I'm pretty sure that FS and Best Buy merged at one point but I didn't think that FS had a presence outside of Canada.

  • The DivX codec used to have a winky smiley in its official name, to differentiate it in an ironic way. They weren't associated with each other at all, they just stole the name after the disc format was officially dismantled.

  • If you connect your bluray player to the phone line, your viewing is tracked, and targeted advertising is sent back the other way, most people seem happy enough with that.

    I personally disconnect mine when I start watching something new, not because of the tracking, but because I don't want to sit through 10 minutes of additional trailers.

  • Having kids my schedule is fairly rhythmic. If I have time to watch a movie it's usually around the kids' bedtime. If I start watching a movie at 8 one night the rental is expiring around the same time as I can finish watching it. I think 24 hours PLUS the length of the movie would be a reasonable start.
  • I rented a film on iTunes a couple of years back and it expired 5 minutes before the end because I didn't get a chance to finish it the day before. I've never rented an iTunes movie again.

    Traditional video rental from the uk was generally 2 nights, so it's odd to see this 24 hours rule become so unilateral...

  • Didn't DIVX also develop a disc that would grow opaque after 48 hours, so it wouldn't have to phone home, but would still have a countdown once the plastic was opened and it was exposed to air?

  • I worked at Circuit City when DIVX was introduced. I sold HUNDREDS of DVD players by telling people how horrible DIVX was, and how we (CC) would kill off Blockbuster and Hollywood Video because the studios could not wait for the chance to control what and when you could watch, and Disney was thinking of investing heavily in DIVX so parents would have to pay a rental fee for the kids movies when Disney wanted the movies "back in the vault".

    Another sales guy reported me... My sales were too good to get me fired for it though. But my manager seemed to hover much closer after that though...

  • Divx was the one and only product at Circuit City I couldn't sell. I never saw the value of the product for the customer. Buy the disc and then have to pay to watch it? No consumer value in that. The failure of Divx was a factor in the closure of Circuit City.

  • You're correct about the 24-hour (or 48-hour in most places) viewing time window comparison. However the similarity ends there. The huge difference between DIVX discs and our current culture of streaming video rentals is: you still had to buy the DIVX disc. I don't mean pay a $6 purchase fee and then you start watching it. You had to purchase the disc, and then you paid the rental fee on top of that. And from what I recall DIVX discs weren't any cheaper than regular DVDs, if anything I think they were more.

    I'm always amazed when I bring up DIVX to my friends and somehow they cannot remember the 1998 holiday season when Circuit City threw all their advertising power behind DIVX, including what I believe is probably the first commercial use of paid shills in an online forum-spamming campaign. That holiday season you couldn't turn on a TV or walk into a Circuit City without seeing some kind of DIVX misinformation trying to convince people that paying more for a DVD player and then paying to buy discs that you then had to rent was somehow superior to just buying a DVD player where you could watch discs as many times as you liked forever. I'm pretty sure this is one of the major reasons why Circuit City tanked - it's one thing to come out with a tech blunder, but it's another thing to deliberately play people like they're idiots.