JULY 1999 IN
RICK ASTER’S WORLD

Divx Folds

On June 16, Digital Video Express announced that it was giving up on its Divx video disk format. Divx, like DVD-Video, is a disk format for video, usually movies. The difference is that a central computer system keeps track of every time every Divx disk is played, and in most cases, bills the consumer for each viewing. With Digital Video Express going out of business, the millions of Divx disks already in people’s collections will no longer play back after June 30, 2001.

One of the reasons people were skeptical about Divx is the Divx player’s need to check with a central computer in order to play any Divx disks a consumer had purchased. Could people really trust a big, faceless corporation to let them play their disks the way it had promised? Those who said no, you don’t want to have to count on some big company to let you watch the videos in your collection, turned out to be right.

Some DVD-Video advocates had opposed the Divx format from the beginning, fearing it would lead to confusion about video disk formats and hurt any chance DVD-Video might have of catching on with the general public.

So is the withdrawal of the Divx format good news for the DVD-Video format? Not really. DVD-Video still faces its own fundamental challenges, which have nothing to do with Divx — in particular, players that cost twice as much as VHS recorders for a picture quality that is not an obvious improvement. DVD-Video also faces competition from a newly resurgent Super VHS format. Super VHS is less expensive than DVD-Video, some people say it provides a better picture, and unlike DVD-Video, you can record with it. And there are technical problems with mastering and manufacturing for DVD that still have not been fully resolved.

The real winner in the fall of Divx will probably be VHS. What will Divx owners do with all their movies that they know they won’t be able to play two years from now? My guess is that they’ll record them onto VHS tapes. If so, the brief Divx experiment will only have proved that VHS, with all its problems, is still the right answer for most people who want to watch video programs at home.


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