Much ado has been made recently about the end of the format war between Blu-Ray and HD DVD. Sony finally won a format war, much to my (and many other people’s) surprise. After losing Beta vs. VHS, Memory Stick vs. SD, and MiniDisc vs. who-knows-what, it’s hard to fault everybody (including me) for predicting the demise of Blu-Ray.

Sadly for Sony, I’m not sure it’s that much of a victory. They finally win one and it turns out the battle has changed. Given my recent track record on predictions in this battle, I’m not sure I should be making others, but here’s my new prediction: neither HD DVD nor Sony Blu-Ray win the format battle. Instead, downloads direct to some (really any) media device will win. Sure TiVo/Amazon have allowed people to download movies for a while now, but they charge anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99, allowing 30-60 minutes before starting to watch is wise, and they limit viewing time to 24-hours once you start watching it.

Last night, I finally got around to trying the Netflix download service. First, it’s “free”. Since I already have the service, I can download any one of about 8,000 movies instantly at no additional cost. While 8,000 certainly doesn’t cover all movies, it’s way more than are available on pay-per-view, more than are available at my local Blockbuster, and more than were available on the TiVo/Amazon partnership. Next, I was able to start watching within about 5 seconds. I’m sure it varies based on the hardware, but I tried it on a slower laptop over a wireless network and had no issues. Sure, watching video on a laptop isn’t that much fun especially for a group, but all the new HD TV’s have a computer input, making that connection simple. The quality was as good as any regular DVD I’ve rented (though not yet HD quality). When I didn’t like the movie, I felt like I could stop the movie. I hadn’t paid for it. I didn’t have to wait another 30-60 minutes for the next download to start. I didn’t have to take the DVD back to the store or even put it in the Netflix mailer. I could move on with little or no penalty. Sure other software, not the least of which is iTunes, offers some of the same capabilities, but none (that I’m aware of) offer it on a fixed price, all-you-can-eat model, and none that I’ve seen that allow viewing almost instantly at full quality.

Now that’s the future of video entertainment!