B is for Betamax

Betamax_closeThere was a story late in 2015 that Betamax cassette tapes would be discontinued in March 2016. This surprised me. Sony had discontinued making the RECORDERS more than a dozen years earlier.

Betamax was “a videotape format in competition with VHS (introduced in Japan by JVC in October 1976 and in the United States by RCA in August 1977)…”

According to Sony’s own history webpages, the name came from a double meaning: beta being the Japanese word used to describe the way signals were recorded onto the tape, and from the fact that when the tape ran through the transport, it looked like the Greek letter beta (β). The suffix -max, from the word “maximum”, was added to suggest greatness…

Betamax and VHS competed in a fierce format war, which saw VHS come out on top in most markets. The VHS format’s defeat of the Betamax format became a classic marketing case study. Sony’s attempt to dictate an industry standard backfired when JVC made the tactical decision to forgo Sony’s offer of Betamax in favor of developing its own technology…

It is odd, too, because all the experts, and most of the users, considered Betamax a superior product in terms of recording quality.

By 1980, JVC’s VHS format controlled 60% of the North American market. The large economy of scale allowed VHS units to be introduced to the European market at a far lower cost than the rarer Betamax units. In the United Kingdom, Betamax held a 25% market share in 1981, but by 1986, it was down to 7.5% and continued to decline further. By 1984, 40 companies made VHS format equipment in comparison with Beta’s 12. Sony finally conceded defeat in 1988 when it, too, began producing VHS recorders though it still continued to produce Betamax recorders until 2002.

In Japan, Betamax had more success…, but eventually both Betamax and VHS were supplanted by laser-based technology…

One other major consequence of the Betamax technology’s introduction to the U.S. was the lawsuit Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios (1984, the “Betamax case”), with the U.S. Supreme Court determining home videotaping to be legal in the United States, wherein home videotape cassette recorders were a legal technology since they had substantial noninfringing uses.

I never owned a Betamax machine. Seeing two incompatible technologies vying in the marketplace, I bought NEITHER machine until it was clear that VHS was going to win out. My first VHS player I didn’t purchase until c. 1985, one of the late adapters.

abcw19klein

ABC Wednesday – Round 19