Insiders question the chance for success for the new pay-as-you-play system

Is it an ingenious pay-as-you-play system for watching movies at home? Or is it a pointless, fated-to-fizzle twist on the year-old digital video disc (DVD) format?

No matter which experts you ask about the imminent launch of the Divx video-disc player — that’s short for Digital Video Express, the Circuit City-controlled company that plans to introduce $500 Divx players along with at least 100 disc titles — you’ll get an impassioned, often confusing earful.

”It’s been difficult to establish that Divx is not a separate, incompatible format,” says Divx Entertainment president Paul Brindze, who expects to launch the product in San Francisco and one East Coast city in May. ”It’s not like Beta versus VHS, where there are two mutually exclusive machines. It’s one format, DVD, that you can buy with or without the Divx feature.”

But try telling that to people who’ve already bought in to DVD. The catch is, regular DVD players can’t play Divx software because the discs are encrypted: Your $4.50 ”purchase” of a Divx disc means you never have to return it to the store, but it entitles you only to a 48-hour viewing period. For repeats you pay either a fresh charge of about $3.25 or a ”conversion” fee of around $12 to make the disc viewable forever on any of your players — and yours alone. The charges are tallied via a modem line you must attach to your telephone.

Will Divx fly? Not very high, according to disinterested parties in the electronics business. ”It’s way too complicated for Joe Six-Pack,” says Brent Butterworth, a product tester for Home Theater magazine. ”Besides, what this product is really about isn’t giving the viewer a better way. It’s about eliminating the video-store middleman and giving movie studios a piece of every rental transaction.” Current prognosis: Don’t expect the Divx dawn to eclipse Blockbuster nights anytime soon.