Yesterday, Google announced its Google Video online store, with a host of content suppliers including CBS and the NBA. Lost in much of the excitement was an announcement and a non-announcement, both of which could be very significant.
The announcement was a partnership with DivX to use its format as Google’s standard for downloading video files to consumers. The choice of DivX is surprising to some, but it shouldn’t be. Apple (Quicktime) and RealNetworks (RealVideo) are both competitors, and Microsoft (Windows Media) is an enemy. In addition, DivX, based on MPEG-4’s H.264/AVC codec, has very efficient compression and display quality at various bitrates that can go head-to-head with any of the “big three” formats. Adobe/Macromedia’s Flash Video could have been an alternate choice, but it doesn’t have an integral Digital Rights Management (DRM) system for protecting content.
However, an important capability of DivX wasn’t discussed. The current version of DivX offers a set of features very close to those of DVDs. For example, DivX file authors can add interactivity to their videos, enabling them to create menu structures much like DVDs. DivX also supports multi-language subtitles, multiple audio tracks, chapter marks and metadata, just like DVDs. However, instead of requiring the overhead of PC DVD players, these functions can be used in lightweight DivX players. They will also be supported by the free Google Video Player.
By taking advantage of the DivX advanced features, content creators can add enormous functionality to their videos. An excellent demo can be downloaded here (you’ll need the DivX 6 player, which is free, to play it and use the interactive features.) One potential problem is that the authoring tools for DivX are in beta and are very rudimentary, but I suspect that’s a problem that DivX and Google could solve fairly quickly.
The non-announcement concerns the DRM system that Google’s implementing. Google’s executives dodged questions about how their DRM system will work, except to say that it won’t permit DRM-protected files to be played by portable players unless the content provider gives permission. DivX has its own DRM system, and Google may be using that “as is,” licensing the code from DivX to make its own proprietary system, or writing its own system from scratch.
In any case, Google will be introducing one more DRM to the world that’s likely to be incompatible with other DRM schemes. Yet another DRM system means yet another headache for content providers and third-party developers.
Clearly, the big winner in this deal is DivX. It’ll gain enormous credibility from its partnership with Google. Also, It’ll be very interesting to see if and/or when Google plays the interactivity card, which will raise the stakes vs. Yahoo! and Microsoft. I expect Google to release the details of its DRM when the Google Video store opens. Until then, all we can do is speculate.