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Modern Relics: The brief history of Betamax

Modern Relics: The brief history of Betamax
How Betamax lost the video format war
How Betamax lost the video format war
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How Betamax lost the video format war
How Betamax lost the video format war

The relentless march of technological development means once cutting edge inventions are continually being relegated to the scrapheap, or at least the musty bottom drawer. From what might have been to what never stood a chance, our Modern Relics video series takes a look back at technology that has fallen by the wayside, found itself on the wrong side of a format war, or was simply superseded by new innovation.

In this episode we look back at Betamax, a loser in the VCR format war of the early 1980s. Despite the technical superiority of Betamax, it just didn't catch on with needs of the general public.

Modern Relics: Betamax

Anyone out there remember siding with Betamax in the VCR wars? How long did you hold out before switching to VHS? We'd love to hear your stories in the comments below.

Be sure to check out previous episodes of Modern Relics here.

Actually, it was the video porn industry, that pretty much killed the betamax. You could get an entire movie on it, where as the betamax was only 60 minutes.
Robert Walther
There should at least be an honorable mention of the fact that Beta(sp) and even digiBeta formats were the basis of all professional/post production video editing. This was true at least through 2007 when I retired due to open heart surgery.
Here in England, where we could get 750 tapes, it was the cost of VCRs to buy that killed Betamax. About 90% rented their VCR from TV rental companies and those companies chose VHS and it was only those who bought their VCR who chose to buy Betamax, some, of course,did buy VHS but very few. JVC benefitted with their contracts with the TV rental companies and the video rental shops stocked only VHS films. Pornography was not allowed to be sold or rented on tape. So, here it was the rental system that killed Betamax.
Alberto Rezende Almeida
In fact I had Betamax ( the first one I bought) and then due to lack of videos I bought a VHS - DVD etc but the only one I still keep is Betamax's portable with camera ( I think that it was the first public portable machine ( a souvenir ) but as far as I was concerned the quality os beta was better than VHS . Thanks Alberto Rezende
Paul Nash
"... superseded by new innovation"? As opposed to old innovation?
I still marvel that my dusty old VHS machine can play cassettes and my old Atari's floppy drive still functions perfectly.
Today's generation have editing facilities literally in the palms of their hands that are godlike relative to what we had pre 2000. I remember paying 300 pounds just to print 7 min. of colour film.
Betamax may have lost the war for the hearts of consumers but in the TV Industry it has been the go to recording form for decades and only started losing out to DVD's a few years ago. To the extent that Sony only stopped producing Betamax tapes earlier this year http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Wait-Why-Was-Sony-Still-Creating-Betamax-Tapes-93637.html
Actually, if you used your Betamax to time-shift TV and didn't rent movies, Beta lasted just as long as VHS did. Blank beta tape remained available because it was the same tape used in professional Betacam cameras and editing suites. Smaller form factor, better quality, same 2-4-6 hour recording speeds at equivalent prices. I still own a working machine collecting the same dust as my vhs deck.
Dave Mikulec
I've still got my Sanyo top loader Beta deck. I fire it up every winter and it still works perfectly.
As a child, we were a hardcore Betamax family thanks to my Geek Dad. We were the first people in my school to have a VCR: the classic Sony SL8000 in 1978. My Dad continued to use them (I think he must have had 3 or 4 in total) until DVRs took over. I'm fairly certain there is at least one working example in my old bedroom. My 10-year-old son who gets most video on-demand these days has no idea what things used to be like...
The reason Beta lost the "war" was basically hubris on Sony's part. When Sony America (where I worked in strategic planning) asked for a 2 hour version since the Movie of the Week lasted that long, the engineering mentality at Sony Japan took over and denied the request (they felt the image quality would suffer if you slowed down the tape, which at the time was the only option). SO then RCA asked Sony Japan to make them an OEM version that would not have the Sony name, and Sony again demurred. So RCA went to Matshusita (known back then in the US as the Panasonic brand) and they agreed. As I understand it, Matsushita basically took the older U-Matic (invented by Sony) cassette format and downsized it to 1/2" wide tape, and voila - they made the 2 hour version.
Years later, when Sony's Dothan, Alabama tape factory started to make VHS format cassettes there was a lot of face lost...
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