Warner Brothers' decision to side with Blu-Ray has caused early HD-DVD adopters to feel like losers while Blu-Ray supporters are gleefully congratulating themselves for their great foresight. On the assumption that the format wars are actually over -- not everybody agrees -- you might think this would be the final nail in the coffin for Bill Gates. He's already halfway out the door at HD-DVD backer Microsoft, but multi-billionaire Bill has always been a positive thinker.

When USA Today asked for his reaction, he replied in part: "HD DVD did well over the holidays. The other trend we're seeing is that direct download over broadband - I think the greatest example of that is XBox Live - (is) becoming an important choice. Over time, that will be the dominant way that people get their movies."

Is he trying to say everybody loses? I think he's just acknowledging that high-def DVD is only a stopgap measure. The format wars may or may not have fostered innovation and lower hardware prices, but the elephant in the room has been downloading over broadband, an idea whose time has finally (apparently) come. In addition to XBox Live, Netflix recently announced a deal with LG for a new download box, Apple is talking about renting movies through iTunes, Sony is hinting they'll roll out something similar to XBox Live for the Playstation 3 this year, and so on and so on.

Why does this matter for movie fans? Beyond the obvious, if you have an interest in non-blockbusters and don't live in one of a handful of big cities, movie downloading holds the prospect of opening up the playing field to smaller distributors and independent filmmakers. Right now we tend to look down on films that go straight to DVD (or iTunes), but if Radiohead can make a success of a completely independent release structure, why can't filmmakers?