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The truth about the DivX revolution

Will videos really become as easily tradeable as MP3s?

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When we poo-pooed the announcement by Hollywood's big studios a fortnight ago that they were launching a video-on-demand system to deliver movies over the Internet, we had a number of emails arguing that we'd got it all wrong and were behind the times.

DivX is already here, it's already being used and, most importantly, it's great quality at full screen, we were told. It is the equivalent of MP3 for videos and the world will never be the same. Hollywood studios are right to be worried and they may already be too late.

We've checked out DivX before and were unconvinced that it possessed the full powers ascribed to it by its supporters. But what's the harm of another look?

The Hollywood studios (all except Disney and Fox, who appear to be going off on their own route) have agreed to an "initiative", headed by Sony - the master of high-quality proprietary technology - to offer a service they claim will be available from next year. You will be able to go through lists of movies, select one, pay $4 and then download it in between 40 minutes to 4 hours. That file will then sit on your hard drive for up to a month and disappear within a day of you first opening it.

The initiative is codenamed MovieFly for the moment and its purported aim is to get a copyrighted system up and running before anyone has the chance to create a Napster-style monster for films.

The reason they're doing it is because of DivX. What is DivX? It's a compression codec for video, based on Mpeg4. It started as a subversive, hacker-type tool but the people behind it recently renamed themselves DivX Networks, announced their intention to go legit and have since been improving the codec as well as including Digital Rights Management.

DivX Networks has just released version 4 of its codec, which it has slotted into Windows Media Player. It has also released its own Playa, but it's not up to Media Player's standard at the moment.

So what?
DivX is impressive. It reduces videos to about a quarter of what was previously possible. This means you can get an entire movie - of TV screen size and near-DVD quality - down to around 600-800Mb. It has one problem at the moment in that it comes in two formats - one for fast-motion pictures and one for slow-motion pictures. However there are people who have figured out how to combine the two formats for different points in a movie, making the best of both worlds. Work goes on as we speak. This is high-quality stuff and sound is provided with the latest MP3 codecs.

Also, thanks to DeCSS - the cracking tool that dare not speak its name - people can now easily crack the encryption put on official DVDs, save it in DivX format, send it over the Internet to Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all and we have a major piracy problem. With the release of the first-ever commercially available DVD-RW recorder, things look even worse. Soon, the market will be flooded with cheap DVDs of films and movie companies will suffer.

That, at least, is the theory being put about by both extremes - the crackers because they love the idea of revolution, smashing corporate scum etc, and the movie industry because they want to garner support, probably for new, restrictive laws.

The reality, however, is somewhat different.

First of all, DivX just does not exist without very fast broadband connections to the Internet. The average movie is coming in at 700Mb. With a dial-up account, it is simply pointless trying to download this amount of information. The connection would never hold for long enough. Even if it did, the wait would drive you mad.

Most people with broadband are looking at 500Kbps and this, in reality, means a six-hour download for a full movie. It's possible and many are doing it, setting it up often remotely to start downloading while out the house or while asleep and coming back to it. It's part of hacker culture to withstand lengthy downloads without going mad. Not a problem. When you start hitting 2Mbps, T1 lines etc, DivX starts becoming a real practicality.

Except, except. Where the hell do you get these movies from? And how easy is it to crack a DVD and save it in a good-quality DivX format? It's not that hard, actually. Well, not if you have a fair amount of technical nous and a lot of patience. You can get hold of a whole range of movies over IRC, just go to a #freemovies channel or somesuch. You do need to know IRC commands though. It can also be intimidating to anyone not very familiar with IRC. Of course, with a little bit of research, you can find guides on how to find and download movies. And then there's FTP sites and the like.

What about cracking DVDs? It can be done. We found several guides dotted about over the Internet, along with links on the software you'll need to do it. So we downloaded it all and went to work. And about five hours later, we finally managed to get a half-decent copy of part of a legitimately bought DVD. Steep learning curve and all that, but we're not really that fussed to go to the trouble again. It can be done, but needs technical knowledge and a lot of effort.

Then, of course, there's storage. Having downloaded several parts of movies, movie trailers, music videos etc, it soon reached the point where memory was becoming an issue. Yes, memory is dirt cheap, but if you don't have it installed, can you be arsed to go buy some more and install it just so you can watch a few movies for free when you can rent one for a couple of quid? [Incidentally, we feel that the collective excitement around anything new - fed upon by movie companies in the form of hype - should really be categorised as a temporary mental illness.]

And your point is?
The point is that it is all very possible but does it pose a threat? It can be run through a TV, say DivX supporters - that makes it immediately attractive to ordinary people. That's true as well, but again, some technical knowledge/effort required.

The simple fact is that the DivX system is just too involved and complicated for anyone but technical evangelists to bother with. MP3 was easy. You downloaded Napster, typed in a word, double-clicked and half and hour later - music. DivX is a very different monster.

Computer enthusiasts take a certain pride in something requiring technical knowledge to work it. It makes you feel part of an elite group. They like to see the wires. It requires capitalists obsessed only with money to turn such a system into something so simple that average Joe can work it with the minimum of understanding (was Napster's Shawn Fanning motivated by the cash? - ed).

And will any company in their right minds do this for movies when multi-billion pound film companies will jump all over them as soon as they release a product. Napster has set a dangerous precedent in the sense that it lost. A similar fight over video would be short-lived.

What about pirate DVDs, you say? Well, what about pirate VHS videos? Virtually anyone in the world can make copies of legitimate videos and hand them to friends or sell them for a few quid cheaper. But how many pirate videos do you have at home? It just won't happen to the degree that everyone seems to think it will.

Where will DivX change the world? Simple - in the same areas as blank videos and blank cassettes. Namely, recording stuff on public networks - TV and radio. TV companies are notoriously useless at providing copies of TV shows, the Web may well change that. And that's a good thing. Dissemination of information. It's not as sexy as newly released films but it is far more useful to society as a whole.

The one thing that we may really have to thank DivX for though is that it puts pressure on the lazy, greedy film studios, in the same way that MP3 has focussed the lazy, greedy music industry. If the movie industry ignores it, then people will produce simpler versions of DivX end-to-end and it will take off.

Instead, film studios will have to work on their great advantage. That being quality. A DivX movie will not give you any interactivity - one of the main things that has made DVDs popular despite the higher price tag. By providing better quality goods at a price that balances that quality with how much people are willing to cough up, the movie industry can see off this piracy threat and keep us the consumers happy.

And it looks like the movie industry has learnt from the music industry and decided it has to get in there early. While it's doing that it will continue to make noises about how awful piracy is and how it is ruining the world (in much the same way as Microsoft does with pirated software) and most likely ask for new laws to be considered. And, hopefully, everyone will ignore them and simply say "well do a better job then".

A good argument is a good argument when both sides of it are well represented. And the outcome always lies in the middle. ®

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