Posted on August 18, 2022 in Technology

FlexPlay: The Worst of All Worlds

Once upon a time, there was a growing trend towards making media easy to access. Netflix launched, and allowed subscribers to receive and send back discs through the mail. Blockbuster was still around, and they were big enough to try and buy out Netflix! Gamefly did something similar. Video games, on-demand TV, or special packages of channels were now available for sale. Still, some saw room for improvement. Even though they didn’t see it over the internet like everybody else.

Welcome: Flexplay.

Flexplay creates movie discs that degrade on contact with air to become unreadable after so many hours. This was done to simulate renting a movie, without the inconvenience of getting back to the BlockBusters – they’d give movie watchers the ability to ‘rent’ a movie from the grocery store! On paper, without other services getting in the way, it sounds pretty great – you get the disc, you watch the disc until it’s unreadable, and then you trash the disc, no fuss. But think about it a moment longer, and you can start to see where they went wrong.

Flexplay was a very brief detour in the realm of rental movies and was ditched because not only was it more expensive for users (Redbox was growing at this time – a rental from Redbox for the same amount of time as Flexplay, bought from the same store, cost two or three dollars less) but also because it was a plastic nightmare. Picture this: every movie you ever rented wasn’t returned, it was trashed. Every. Single. Disc. You ever rented from a Redbox, piled in the trash.

Remember, there is no internet streaming yet, if you want to watch a movie during that time after it’s done in theaters, you’re going to rent a disc. Downloads are for purchasing a movie and priced as such. Picture all the movies you’d watch on Netflix, in a pile, burnt on discs – apply that to every movie-loving family. It’s a lot. It’s more than it sounds like.

The Theory

Let’s look at the thought process that went into launching this product – They’ll sell in airports so people can watch movies without having to worry about returning them. Sure! They’ll also do this better than RedBox, which has already launched, and was in front of most Walmarts even back then. But that means the traveler has to take a detour, so it would still probably work! But what about the rest of the market?

Well, they’ll sell discs that the user doesn’t have to return, period! Maybe?

They’ll do this for so cheaply and conveniently that users won’t go to Netflix, the mailing service. Nope, not that either.

They’ll… they’ll be widely available? Not more than Redbox or Netflix.

They’ll be cheap? Not cheaper than Netflix or Redbox, per movie, per day.

The market was captured – and Flexplay just wasn’t innovative enough to make space for itself.

Plus, the plastic waste this would have created might have set off the ‘plastic straws’ debate years earlier. This produces an absurd amount of waste, and the company’s answer boiled down to ‘We’ll make it easy for users to recycle the discs’. How, you might ask? Drop off bins in the stores they were available in as well as letting you mail them back. It made sense – but yet again, they’re making users go through the same processes Netflix and Redbox were using for three dollars more. You still have to drive to the store or ship out the disc to avoid producing non-degradable plastic waste, for three dollars more than other services that don’t make self-destruct discs.

Ultimately, they went out and took down any others with the same idea with them. The patent they’d launched with was so incredibly broad that any kind of self-destruct disc might have been included within it. It was essentially the equivalent of Edison copyrighting all kinds of film, so only he could make content! The patent didn’t even matter – nobody wanted to follow in their footsteps with a project that was outdated before it even came out.

FlexDisc. The worst aspects of all the services available at the time.