A barely noted landmark was passed this week when next-generation DVDs overtook VHS in worldwide sales. Although it is not much of a breakthrough, the unsung but remarkable resilience of tape is a reminder that new media does not simply kill its predecessors.

Still, the arrival of the rival Blu-ray and HD DVD as the world's second-biggest home-entertainment formats is a reminder they are moving in the right direction. It hasn't always felt like that. For all the comparisons with the Betamax-VHS wars of the 1980s, it has done little to capture the public imagination and that is not good news for the film business.

The so-called 'format wars' have looked more like self-interested posturing and reports of the tussle have slipped from being a big film story to being a tediously long-running mainstay for the technology press.

It's an extraordinary state of affairs, given that DVD has been the cash cow that sustained the business in recent years. The replacement of that format by higher definition discs ought to be a bigger deal and this year should be key.

The summer's blockbusters, in terms of popularity, quantity and scale, might have been expected to be the catalyst for a big leap forward.

Their high-definition releases may be significant in the battle between formats - Sony's Spider-Man 3 will be on Blu-ray only, while Universal's The Bourne Ultimatum will be restricted to HD DVD. Few significant analysts, however, see signs of a knockout punch.

Despite the releases coinciding with a further significant drop in the costs of HD TV, the long-awaited tipping point in mass adoption remains distant.

The fact that buyers won't be able to see some major releases puts the future back a few paces. Customers don't want to fight the format wars out of their own pocket. Why buy until the industry gets its act together on a single format'

The 1980s Betamax-VHS wars retain a psychological effect on the market. No-one wants to be left with obsolete kit and customers are not yet convinced about hybrids that play both. It's not as if there is widespread dissatisfaction with the existing DVD format, particularly when in a saturated market prices are tumbling.

The rise of online rental services has also given DVD a new lease of life. The convenience of an internet-ordered DVD through the letter box certainly looks a better bet right now than 30, 40 or 50 gigabytes of storage capacity.

So what's going to drive the market now'

Sony's inclusion of Blu-ray on its latest PlayStation model offers a vision that games and film may be the perfect partners to win over customers. The jury is still out on that one, but again, the evidence seems to be that it won't be an iPod-style winner-takes-all hit.

The question now being asked is whether it really matters as much as we had imagined a few short years ago. The next stage in the evolution of DVD is not going to be the cash cow of its predecessors.

Home entertainment will no longer rely solely on a disc. It will have to share the field with online downloading, which is a couple of evolutionary steps away from becoming a major power - chiefly download time, web capacity and hardware.

DVD rental companies are all investing in download technology; Blockbuster, for example, this month bought download service Movielink.

With little conclusive evidence that either Blu-ray or HD DVD has the power yet to kill its rival, we're heading for a fragmented set of choices. But it's not the headache it would have been a few years ago. The public is proving adept at skipping between media.

The reason we should be bothered is that the world is continuing to turn while we argue. The future seems to be perpetually around the next corner and every day there are new diversions wooing consumers' attention.

It's worth remembering that in the end, we're engaged in a battle for precious customer time.

- Do you agree' Join the debate at feedback@screeninternational.com or e-mail michael.gubbins@emap.com.