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Betamax vs. VHS: an old-school technology battle

Sean Sweany | Wednesday, April 26, 2006

In a time before DVD, Dolby Surround Sound and digital movie projection – when hair bands and disco ruled our culture – a format war overwhelmed the entertainment world just as the HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray conflict does today. Known today mostly to older generations and collectors, it was the fight between Betamax and VHS.

In the early 1970s, home videocassette recorders became available to the public at cheap prices. The first successful system was the Sony-produced Betamax. It was named “Betamax” because the shape of the tape running through the cassette looked like the Greek letter “Beta.”

One year after the debut of Betamax, JVC introduced a rival product, the VHS, or Video Home System. VHS works by running a magnetic tape between two spools, which is then passed over various playback and recording heads in a Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) to produce an image.

The original Betamax systems featured a high recording quality but only held one hour’s worth of footage – that’s less than a feature film. VHS, on the other hand, lost some quality, but could manage two hours of recording thanks to larger cassettes and slower tape speed. Betamax made changes to its cassettes to eventually have space for over three hours, but VHS could employ a “Slow Play” program to record eight hours of footage.

In the beginning of its production, Betamax cornered the market and held nearly 100% market share because of the incompatibility of other formats. However, VHS sales quickly overtook those of Betamax for several reasons.

First was the superior recording time of VHS compared to Betamax. In spite of numerous product revisions by Sony, VHS always enjoyed a longer recording time. Along with this, both VHS tapes and recorders were available at prices cheaper than those of Betamax. Betamax machines eventually became easier to rent, but by that point VHS had already cornered nearly 70 percent of the market for recordable tapes.

Sony again made a crucial mistake in the marketing of its Betamax product. Whereas 40 companies utilized the VHS format by 1984, only 12 used Betamax. Sony’s refusal to sign licensing agreements with movie studios and cassette hardware companies led to a further reduction in market share. By contrast, VHS became more widely available.

By the late 1980s, nearly every street corner store held a rack of VHS tapes available for sale, while Betamax tapes were almost impossible to find. In 1988, Sony began to manufacture VHS recorders, conceding defeat in the format war. VHS went on to dominate the industries of home recording and movie distribution until the introduction of the DVD in 1997.

While Betamax died a silent death in the home video market, it lived on for a time in personal camcorders and a derivative called Betacam is now one of the standards in the professional and broadcast video industry. Nevertheless, the public popularity of Betamax dwindled through the 1990s, except for several niche groups. Sony finally gave up on the dying brand, producing its last Betamax player in 2002.

The format war between Betamax and VHS is a classic case of market competition and has been applied to many battles in the computer industry, including Apple vs. IBM, Macintosh vs. Windows and Microsoft vs. Netscape.

While marketing competition existed as one dimension of this format war, the major reasons Betamax failed were the decisions made by Sony concerning the length and licensing of its product. If different decisions had been made, DVD may have phased out Betamax instead of VHS.

However, as it turned out Betamax fell hard, while VHS went on to dominate the marketplace for over a decade. While there have been numerous format wars in various industries throughout history, the Betamax vs. VHS conflict is one of the most well known and studied, thanks to its enormous and lasting effects on the entertainment industry.