Coding Horror

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DIVX vs. DivX

It's ironic that the popular DivX codec has all but obliterated the identity of the ill-fated DIVX pay-per-view rental system.

DivX logo vs. DIVX logo

So what was DIVX?

DIVX (Digital Video Express) was a rental format variation on the DVD player in which a customer would buy a DIVX disc -- physically similar to a DVD -- at a low cost, which would be able to be freely viewed up to 48 hours from its initial viewing. After this period, the disc could be viewed by paying a continuation fee, typically $3.25. DIVX discs could only be played on special DIVX/DVD combo players that needed to be connected to a phone line. DIVX Viewers had to set up an account that additional viewing fees could be charged to. The player would call an account server over the phone line to charge for viewing fees similar to the way DirecTV and Dish Network satellite systems handle pay-per-view. Viewers who wanted unlimited viewing of a particular disc could pay to convert the disc to "Silver" status for a special fee. The physical disc was not altered in any way. The viewer's account kept track of the status of each disc. The Silver disc could be kept for future viewing, resold, given away, or discarded.

This particular bad idea was intensely unpopular online. In 1998 and early 1999, it felt like you couldn't visit a website without seeing an anti-DIVX banner plastered on it somewhere.

Free DVD! Fight DIVX!

The format barely lasted a year.

The DivX codec was introduced in 1998 and intentionally named to parody the besieged DIVX format:

Early versions of DivX included only a codec, and were named "DivX ;-)", where the winking emoticon was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the failed DIVX system.

The DivX codec has a rather storied history itself:

1998 3.11 Alpha Codec created from an illegally hacked MPEG-4 video codec
2001 4.0 DivX corporation formed; clean room codec "created" from OpenDivx project*
2002 5.0 Codec improvements
2005 6.0 Codec expanded to full media container format (eg, *.divx)

The name replacement is so complete that the divx domain has been subsumed as well. You can watch it change hands via the internet archive wayback machine. The last DIVX snapshot is in October 1999; the site goes dark throughout 2000, and reappears in February 2001 as DivX.

It sure is funny when a little hacked codec name joke turns into a multi-million dollar business under the same exact name.

* The ethically questionable 2001 commercial DivX fork of the OpenDivx project is where the open source XviD codec originates from. It's DivX backwards, naturally.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror