It might sound like meaningless techno-babble now, but within the year, it's going to affect everybody who watches movies. Succinctly, it's known as a "format war"; more accurately, you'll call it "a pain the ass." Regardless, two wannabe successors to the DVD format will soon be competing for cinephiles' hearts and consumers' wallets.

First, some history: DVD resulted from years of development by the DVD Consortium, an entertainment industry group that decided to replace blurry, short-lived VHS tapes with an alternative--digital versatile discs. That trans-corporation, trans-movie studio agreement made the VHS to DVD transition relatively painless for consumers--and a far cry from the VHS/Betamax rivalry of the early 1980s.

But now, the companies that developed DVD are competing against each other. Their new formats, Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, boast better image and audio quality and increased storage capacity over DVD, but there are larger concerns.

Amongst them: That neither Blu-Ray nor HD-DVD offer that much of an increase in quality over DVD (not enough to notice unless you have a bajillion-inch plasma screen TV, anyway). Or that nobody's clamoring for a new format, since everyone's still pretty keen on DVD. Or--most bewilderingly--since movie studios have split on which format they'll support, you'll need different players to watch different films when the formats launch, which could be as soon as this fall.

So if no one's asking for a new format, why're studios gearing up to cram two of 'em down our throats? The answer is, of course, money--and it's no coincidence that both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray feature more anti-piracy measures than current DVDs.

But amongst all the finances and ambiguities, one thing's certain--at least in the initial stages, the biggest loser in the format war will be the consumer. Suddenly, just heading to Blockbuster and renting Tom Cruise's latest is looking like a lot more trouble than it's worth.