DivX reported their 1st quarter earnings on Monday and while I’m still waiting to read the actual 10k before digging too far into the numbers, I did want to comment on what I see as a significant shift in strategy. Over the last 7 years, DivX has done an impressive job of building an eco-system around a single file format. The first time that I came across a DivX file, I actually thought that it was some kind of a virus. It took me two weeks before I worked up the courage to download the DivX media player so that I could play the movie, but once I did, I realized that my fears were unfounded. The file not only offered a superior video experience, but it was a lot smaller than the MPEG files that I was used to downloading. Since I was on a dial-up connection at the time, every little byte made a big difference.
As the P2P networks developed, DivX and it’s open source cousin XviD, became an important resource for file sharers. Initially, my own interest in DivX was driven by it’s technological advantages over other video formats, as well as the wide availability of DivX content on the grey market, but as compression technology has evolved, my reasons for using DivX have changed as well. Since I’m no longer on a dial-up network, compression is less important then what I can actually do with my videos.
As DivX gained in popularity, they were able to forge agreements with consumer electronic manufacturers that allowed you to play DivX files on a wide range of devices. Even though, H.264 is a superior standard for internet video, I still prefer DivX files because I know that I’ll be able to play them on the hardware devices that I own.By creating an eco-system that supports portability, DivX has been able to lock me into their format in the same way that Apple has been able to use iTunes to keep their customers buying iPods instead of MP3 players.
As H.264, Microsoft, Apple and Adobe all continue to creep into DivX’s territory, there has been a lot of concern over how DivX would respond to these competing threats. Microsoft’s approach has been to batten down the hatches by developing their proprietary Silverlight codec. By retaining full control over the video format, they are able to convince people to buy as many Microsoft supported products as possible. These extra restrictions increase the appeal of Silverlight for DRM hungry Hollywood studios, but it also frustrates their customers in the process. Incompatible file formats are the reason why services like Netflix’s Watch Now doesn’t get along with Apple. Since Microsoft (and Apple) refuse to open up their codecs, it gives them a monopoly on the hardware that is allowed to support their video files.
Apple has at least opened up their system a little bit by adding support for the H.264 format, but they’ve still chosen to wrap their h.264 files inside of the Quicktime container. This prevents other companies from supporting Apple H.264 content, without obtaining a license for Quicktime first. This helps to open up Apple’s eco-system to alternative video formats, but still gives Apple control over the companies that are allowed to play nice with their your media.
Similarly, Adobe has also forged agreements to support H.264 inside of Flash, but if you want to take your Flash H.264 files portable, you’ll need a device that can support the Flash format. To their credit, Adobe has done a good job of building momentum for downloadable flash by supporting open source initiatives, a new DRM system, and by removing license fees for mobile providers, but despite their early traction with these efforts, there are still very few hardware devices that are actually capable of playing portable flash content.
With so many companies pursuing proprietary video strategies, one would expect DivX to be focusing on locking consumers into the DivX format, but like most things having to do with DivX, their strategy for dealing with the next generation of codecs is also built on a system of openness.
We got our first real glimpse of this strategy last November when DivX announced that they had acquired Mainconcept for $22 – $28 million. The Mainconcept acquisition gave DivX an immediate footprint in the H.264 space, but it also raised some important questions about how DivX could maintain a monopoly on their community, while supporting a format that is widely available to competitors.
Interestingly enough, while discussing H.264 on their latest conference call, DivX CEO Kevin Hell pointed out that the current state of H.264 really isn’t all that different from the MPEG-4 standard that DivX was built on.
Looking forward, a real opportunity exists for DivX to emerge as the consumer face of H.264, serving as a trusted brand for users who don’t want to concern themselves with underlying formats or technologies. In fact, the current H.264 market resembles in many ways the early stages of MPEG-4 market.
When DivX first emerged seven years ago there were number of different and incompatible MPEG-4 implementations available. Through our strong consumer adoption and the creation of the DivX certification program, we were able to simplify the experience for consumers and provide a solution that just works across any device. We plan to repeat that strategy by incorporating broad H.264 support into both our software and consumer electronics offerings under the DivX brand. We are on track to release a new version of our software in 2008 that supports H.264 and then extend that support to consumer electronic devices that are likely to hit the market in 2009. We believe that this development will help move the DivX brand beyond one single format and toward promise of support for any video content, on any device.
DivX’s evolution towards H.264 won’t be a clean and easy transition, but it is the right direction for the company. If they can successfully integrate H.264 into their certification program, it will reduce the threat of their codec becoming obsolete and will highlight their certification process as being the real value added for consumer device manufacturers.
Instead of trying to educate consumers on the differences between MPEG-4 Part 2 vs. MPEG-4 AVC (H.264), CE manufacturers can slap the DivX label onto their devices and consumers will know that it will support their digital video libraries without complications. In fact, during the Q&A section of their conference call, DivX discussed the possibility of pushing this envelope even further by adding Flash support to their certification program.
In terms of how we think about Flash more broadly, the vast majority of content that is downloaded today is in DivX format or variations of the DivX format, so we don’t see that as being a threat in terms of the use case that we’re really providing, which is high quality content delivered through the internet and then played back on a variety of devices. To the extent that Flash starts to get traction in terms of files that are downloaded at high quality and based on the terms, it would be something that we could actually extend into and offer into our certification program as well and that’s what we’d be looking to do.
Part of what makes DivX such a difficult company to pin down, is their ability to take competitors and turn them into partners. On one hand, Microsoft is one of the biggest threats to DivX, but if they can get them to extend DivX support to the Xbox, they could become an important customer.
Adobe is currently using Mainconcept to power their H.264 support, but they are also trying to establish their own format as the new standard for internet delivered video. These complex relationships are enough to make anyone’s head spin, but DivX has a way of getting their partners to look at the glass half full side of the equation.
On one hand, It’s hard for me to believe that Adobe would be all that enthusiastic about giving up control over their flash content, but on the other hand, a DivX partnership would create a powerful competitor to Apple and Microsoft’s closed systems.
Adobe would gain access to an established community of video fans and would have one more platform that could drive demand for Flash content. Instead of having to worry about the lack of downloadable flash content, they could leverage DivX’s popularity, while slowly introducing their own standard for web video. While I doubt that older DivX devices would be able to support Flash with a firmware update, any new DivX devices would be able to support their content.
For DivX, they would be able to increase the appeal of their brand by offering support for the next generation of internet video. They could also use Adobe DRM as a way of bypassing studio approval for DivX content. While DivX did mention plans to update their DRM later this year, getting in through Adobe’s backdoor could be a lot easier than buying off the studios. According to DivX’s 4th quarter 10k filing, they paid Sony $1.5 million and gave them 100,000 warrants at a strike price of $16.14, in order to get the studio to bless the DivX format. While it’s possible that DivX plans on buying off all of the studios, this could get expensive really quick, if DivX is serious about going legit.
For consumers, it would be the biggest win of all. Instead of being locked into a single file format, they would have the flexiblity to adopt alternative standards without having to abandon their current media libraries. This would pressure Microsoft and Apple to open up their hardware, instead of maintaining data silos.
It’s hard to judge how serious DivX is about adopting flash support from just a few comments, but even beyond flash, having support for multi-formats adds real value to their brand. As new forms of digital transmission unfold, DivX is in a position to attach their brand to a much larger category of web video.
Some of the niche video formats don’t have the ability to negotiate partnerships with the device manufacturers directly, but through DivX could gain access to a much larger audience. If DivX certification suddenly meant that Matroska containers could play on DivX devices, it would open up another community that DivX could tap into and it would change how Matroska fans think about the DivX brand.
Bringing other formats into the DivX program, would add to DivX’s cost of revenue, but it would make DivX certification more valuable to their CE partners. I may enjoy dissecting the nuances between the various competing video formats, but most consumers don’t want to think about it. They want to be able to play whatever file they have without converting it into a single format. By focusing on supporting as many formats as possible, DivX may end up competing with their own eco-system, but they’ll also expand their reach in the process. By taking DivX beyond the codec, it allows their community to move forward with the future, while hanging onto the treasures from the past.
Davis Freeberg is a technology enthusiast living in the Bay Area. He enjoys writing about movies, music, and the impact that digital technology is having on traditional media. Read more at Davis Freeberg’s Digital Connection.