DivX: from the underground to the living room

DivX will be the video equivalent of MP3, according to Jordan Greenhall, the chief executive officer of Project Mayo, a new company that hopes to use DivX to make its fortune. The technology, he said, is already spreading faster than MP3 did at the same early stages of its life. DivX, Greenhall said, already has between 3 million and 10 million users, which is a number of users similar to that of the ubiquitous file-sharing program Napster, though no hard confirmation of the number he gave could be found.

If DivX sounds familiar, it should. But this DivX isn't the failed pay-per-use DVD (digital video disc) format that Circuit City Stores tried to foist on consumers a few years ago. Rather, this is a program used to compress typically huge video files into smaller sizes more easily viewed over the Internet. But now, thanks to the work of Project Mayo, a codename used in the yet-to-be named company, which includes DivX's creator who goes by the name "Gej", DivX has a chance to move out of the underground and into your living room.

The DVD case, where DivX first gained mainstream notoriety, centered around a program called DeCSS, which, depending on who you believe, is used to view DVDs on Linux computers or to circumvent the encryption technology encoded into every DVD. DeCSS stands for De-Content Scrambling System.

One of the most important pieces of testimony came early in the trial from Michael Shamos, an intellectual property attorney and faculty member of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in the US. Using Windows 2000, DeCSS, a file compression utility called WinZip, DivX and Internet Relay Chat, Shamos was able to pirate DVDs, affirming the MPAA's claim that DeCSS facilitates theft. After a six-hour download, Shamos produced a pirated copy of "The Matrix," although he admitted the quality was not as good as DVD. While six hours is a long wait, Shamos noted that download time should quickly fall as bandwidth and computer processor speeds increase.

Based on his testimony, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ruled in favor of the MPAA and banned DeCSS. DeCSS hasn't disappeared, though, and neither has DivX. It has found a wide audience in the computer underground where pirated movies, CDs and video games are traded like business cards at a trade show.

In the Internet's hacker underground, DivX is wide-spread. In fact, Mayo's Greenhall said, hackers consider it "poor form, poor style" to use anything other than DivX for online movies. DivX generates excitement and loyalty due to the degree of compression it offers. It is ideal for pirating DVDs because it is able to perform the Herculean task of compressing a DVD, which can hold up to 4.7G bytes of data, into 650M bytes, a size small enough to fit onto a CD-ROM, doing so with only minimal quality loss.

But Greenhall and the rest of Project Mayo have aspirations that reach far beyond the nearest modem. They want your television.

And they may well get it, thanks to a coincidence of birth.

DivX is the by-product of a media encoder, originally released by Microsoft, based on the MPEG-4 standard, the successor to MP3, said Eric Scheirer, a media and entertainment industry analyst with Forrester Research.

But MPEG-4 is more than just another Internet technology. It is also closely related to the broadcast format that will be used in digital television, according to Greenhall. He and the rest of Project Mayo are banking that this relationship will cement their position in the media world.

DivX is "not a PC-based idea," Greenhall said. Because DivX is natively full-screen, it will provide excellent image quality on televisions. Consumers, Greenhall said, should "expect to see DivX around for a long time."

Forrester's Scheirer is not so sure. Though the technological relationship between DivX and digital television is important, it may be interpersonal relationships that Project Mayo needs most.

"The media industry is a relationship-based business," he said, stressing that in order to be successful, a company must "know the right people" or at least have board members who do.

Because DivX is a technology so firmly rooted in piracy, cultivating these relationships is going to be difficult, Scheirer said.

Greenhall, predictably, disagreed. Though admitting that entertainment companies may initially be reluctant to adopt DivX due to its past, Greenhall is confident that they can be won over.

"We have to be friendly and open (with these companies)," he said. "We have to communicate and make sure, at the very minimum, that the technology meets their needs."

After that, he said, Project Mayo will work with early adopters in the industry and go through the same "long, torturous" process that MP3 went through to gain acceptance. DivX's pirate background ought not to hold it back, as it is only a tool, like a crowbar, Greenhall said. A crowbar "can be used to break into houses, but it can also be used for [legitimate purposes]."

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