In the early 80s we had the home video wars, and 2005 is shaping up to be the year of the DVD format wars. If electronic giants like Sony and Toshiba get their way, by this Christmas regular DVDs will begin to be replaced by a superior technology. Just which technology depends on who wins the battle.
In one corner we have Blu-ray, a new kind of DVD that promises more storage space, higher-quality viewing and tighter protection against copying. These new DVDs are read with a blue laser (your current one uses red), which means that although your player might be able to read the disc, you'll need a new Blu-ray DVD player and in many cases a new TV to experience the high-definition content.
Sony, the biggest backer of Blu-ray, learned the hard way how to market a new format. In the early 80s, Sony's technically superior Betamax video tapes were squeezed out of the market by Matsushita's VHS format simply because Matsushita won the support of more Hollywood studios.
Sony has now partnered up with Matsushita to push Blu-ray, which has recently received a high-profile endorsement from 20th Century Fox. Its list of industry supporters already includes Samsung, Philips, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Hitachi.
In the other corner we have HD DVD, which has the backing of Toshiba, Sanyo, Time-Warner, NEC Corporation and the watchdog organization DVD Forum.
They claim the HD DVD format is cheaper and most similar to current DVDs and will allow people to watch the better-quality format on their current DVD players.
Last spring, manufacturers held talks to find a market standard for the new technology, as they did when DVDs were first launched. But the competitors are convinced that their own format is the best and haven't reached an agreement. A few weeks ago, industry representatives realized they were going to have to let the market decide.
This means that retail stores will have to display two copies of many titles, although many movies will be available only on one, depending on which technology the studio has supported.
Eventually, one format will win and push the other out of the market. Yes, consumers will be screwed if they guess wrong, just like all the people who have nice Betamax players rotting in their basements.
But the benefit of digital technology is that hackers will probably find a way around the restrictions, which means that hybrid players that play both formats might be possible.
Blu-ray is currently capturing Hollywood's attention because it promises to be the most secure format. Ten years ago, the current DVD technology was rushed into the marketplace with little thought of piracy, as a quick stroll through Chinatown will reveal.
Industry reps say Blu-ray players will be hooked up to the Internet. If crafty movie fans try to tinker with their players to undo restrictions, company headquarters can "remotely disable" the player.
If this pisses you off, you're not alone. Exasperation with the powerful entertainment companies is one of the reasons for the sharp increase in pirated and downloaded movies in the past few years.
Hackers like Norway's DVD Jon, famous for cracking media players and file formats mere days after their release, will be hard at work lifting any imposed restrictions, giving people true freedom when deciding what to watch and how to watch it.