Retro Tech Spotlight: Flexplay

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at Flexplay.

Buy it. Watch it. Toss it. Sounds about right.

This disc will self-destruct in 48 hours. No, seriously. Somebody came up with the bright idea of creating DVDs that you could rent and not have to return, because they would simply become unreadable after two days and you could throw them out. If that seems like a lot of waste, you have to remember that this was 2003, and you were probably getting an AOL disc in the mail every other day, so yeah, not a lot of thinking about environmental impact going on in the early aughts, was there?

The product was called Flexplay, and it made its debut in 2003. It wasn’t the first attempt at a limited-use rental DVD that didn’t require return. The DIVX system, which required a DIVX-equipped DVD player with a phone line for activation of discs and allowed for extended viewing or to keep the disc if you made subsequent payments, was in vogue for about five seconds in the late 1990s before going the way of the dodo.

The red one on the right is playable. The black one on the left is not. The one in the middle is debatable.

Flexplay discs didn’t require a phone line, just oxygen. Once you opened the vacuum-sealed packaging, you had approximately 48 hours to watch the disc before the special oxygen-reactive glue compound in the disc darkened from red to an opaque black, to the extent that the laser in your DVD player could no longer read the disc. Unopened, Flexplay discs were said to have a shelf life of 12-18 months.

When Flexplay was first test-marketed in 2003, it was sold … erm, rented … under the ez-D moniker and was reserved solely for movies released by Disney and its subsidiary studios. Titles were sold … erm, rented … for $6.99 each, which is a high enough price point to where you have to ask, “What’s the point?” Most rental shops offered two-day rentals for less than that. By 2004, the price point was down to a more reasonable $4.99, but the format still failed to take hold with consumers, and continued to raise the ire of environmentalists who found it especially wasteful.

Maybe if they’d offered better movies …

By 2008, Flexplay had found a willing partner in Staples, who offered the DVDs in their stores, as well as set up recycling bins for exhausted discs. (How that is different than returning a rented disc, you got me.) And it had agreements in place with a number of additional studions besides Disney — Paramount, Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema and Starz had signed on. There was only one problem. It was 2008.

In 2008, you had Netflix, where you pay one monthly fee, they send you DVDs, you return them when you’re done, and they send you the next one, no late fees. In 2008, you had Redbox, pay a buck at the supermarket, rent a newly-released title for the night; if it’s late, it bills your card an extra buck a day. Blockbuster was still ubiquitous in 2008, with 4,500 stores, even though business had been in steady decline for three years. You had cable and satellite companies offering video-on-demand. There was this new thing Netflix was rolling out called streaming video, and Hulu …

New branding, new studios, same meh technology.

And then there was Flexplay. Flexplay continued to limp along for a couple more years, but when DVDs made the leap to BDs, Flexplay didn’t make the leap with the new technology. There was no reason to. It was the proverbial bicycling fish.

Time of death: Early 2011.