Sony Is Finally Killing Off Betamax. Wait, Betamax Was Still Alive?

You thought Betamax died three decades ago didn't you?

Betamax v. VHS

Sony announced last week that Betamax, the videotape format that long ago lost a format war to VHS that itself was swept aside by DVD, Blu-Ray, and now online streaming, would officially die early next year:

Sony has announced that in March next year it will stop producing Betamax video cassette tapes, forty years after its introduction and 28 years after losing the war to VHS.

Assumed already dead by many, the final Betamax cassette will roll off the production line in March 2016 as its maker concedes defeat to the march of time, 20 ,maybe 30, years late.

The video cassette format was pioneered by Sony in the early 1970s and first released into homes embedded in a 19in TV in 1975. It was embroiled in a format war with rival video cassette VHS, produced by Japanese firm JVC.

Betamax came first and initially offered superior video quality, but when offered a license to use Betamax by Sony, rival JVC decided to develop its own open format to avoid Sony’s domination of the market with a format it would control.

(…)

VHS became a more open and widely adopted format for the video cassette, which resulted in a larger economy of scale, allowing VHS to beat Betamax on price.

That greater adoption and lower cost saw the pornography industry pick VHS as the format of choice for its home videos, which is largely considered the turning point that propelled VHS to victory.

In 1988, Sony conceded victory to the rival format producing its first VHS video cassette recorder. Sony’s last Betamax recorder was produced in 2002, but the company will continue to produce tapes until March 2016.

Both video cassette tape formats were superseded by the video CD in 1993 – a standard defined by JVC, Matsushita, Philips and Sony, the successor to the 1979 LaserDisc.

Video cassettes lingered until the introduction of the DVD in 1995 by Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic. Movie studios adopted the format for its superior video quality and durability, initially leading to DVD players only, not recorders.

Only later in the mid-2000s did affordable home DVD video recorders arrive pushing out VCRs, which were shortly followed by hard drive-based personal video recorders.

The biggest surprise from this announcement for most people, of course, is the news that Betamax tapes were still being produced and that, according the linked reports and others discussing the Sony announcement, the VHS format continues to be produced. It’s not entirely clear what exactly these tapes are being used for, although one presumes that they still may be widely used in the the third world, where adoption of more advanced digital video recording for industries such as news media may still be well behind the West. Indeed, The Verge reports that it has been some time since Sony was actually selling or manufacturing machines capable of using the Betamax format, so the most likely explanation for this seemingly unlikely survival for a media format that had lost the first format war to VHS long before Sony officially conceded defeat in 1988 is that the machines themselves survived and were still being used somewhere in the world. If nothing else, I suppose that’s testimony to the resilience of the machines, or perhaps the ability of technicians to keep those machines running for so long after they seemingly became obsolete and even their victorious VHS cousins were anachronistic. In that sense, the story of the unknown survival of Betamax is not dissimilar to what happened to Sony’s far more popular Walkman, which survived until 2010 despite the rise of iPods and other portable music players, which themselves are now being replaced by music streaming services that allow people to store their music in the cloud. In that case, the ease with which cassettes can be copied and transported made them popular in the third world long after they had died off to such an extent in the West that modern children barely even recognize them.

In any case, the news comes as a reminder of just how quickly technology has changed, especially for those of us who still remember the VHS-Betamax format war. So farewell Betamax, and congratulations on surviving longer than any of us thought you had.

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FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Popular Culture
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    Betamax was the medium of choice for professional recording, most tv journalists used beta while on location (it’s not like you were shooting 4 h sessions and needed the capabilities of VHS). Pretty sure that was driving the market at the end.
    The sad part of course was that there actually was a format superior to both beta and VHS, Video 2000. It offered dual side recording and extra long play when VHS was still having trouble with 2h. But it never made it out of Europe.

  2. Al says:

    Beta was very popular with video professionals (local tv news especially) due to its better video quality. The last of the legacy machines must have finally been retired.

    Beat to the punch by Mu!

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    I don’t think the TV video professionals even went through the DVD or hard drive stage but instead opted for satellite up-links to send the images directly back to the stations in real time.

  4. Greg Bailey says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    Almost correct, Ron,
    Betamax morphed into Betacam, a professional format that was rapidly adopted by the broadcast industry to replace the very expensive 2 inch and eventually 1 inch broadcast tape reel-to-reel formats. The quality and cheapness of the Betacam cassette made it very palatable to broadcasters and professionals alike, although a precursor of the domestic Betamax format, also developed by Sony, called U-Matic became the format of choice for the cheaper end of the broadcast and commercial markets. Some of these machines are still in service today!
    The original Betacam format was eventually developed into Digital Betacam which survives to this day in some broadcast and high end production environments. The transition to tapeless production, however is relentless and almost complete. Sony still produce Digital Betacam tapes for the broadcast and film production industries.
    So DVD was never adopted for acquisition except briefly for domestic camcorders, and has been almost exclusively a delivery format for the movie industry for standard definition recordings to be viewed in the home. The quality leap of DVD over VHS was instrumental in its rapid takeup by domestic users. Sony was involved in its development and eventually took a punt on the Blu-ray format for HD, which is still the highest definition hardware based distribution format for home use. There are moves afoot to upgrade it for 4K recording as well.
    Sony has been at the forefront of technical development in the TV industry for decades now. It is sad that they lost the Betamax vs VHS battle, but that is now well and truly history!

  5. Tyrell says:

    Now they are saying that the music cassettes are making a comeback.
    When I was very young, our prized possession was a Kodak 8 mm movie camera and projector. I wish I still had that rig and the home movies – made in the 50’s – 70’s.
    The movie theaters have changed over from 35 mm film projection systems to digital. We have three drive in theaters around here, and they had to close because of the high cost of switching over to digital. But they hope to pick up some used digital equipment in the next year or two and re-open. I miss the drive-ins: $10 a car load and $2 popcorn !

  6. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Tyrell:

    I moved into a house recently whose previous tenants did not do a great job of clearing out. In the attic there was both an 8 mm and a 16 mm projector. Unfortunately no films, but they are making awesome decorations in my garage-cum-movie-theatre.

    I wouldn’t believe the stories about casettes making a comeback.. I’ve seen them at a few concerts and indy studios. Mostly they are used by garage bands who are just trying to find a way to be recognized (and to be fair, seeing a stack of casette tapes in a modern music store does catch ones attention).

  7. MarkedMan says:

    I can vouch for the fact that in Asia at least, there isn’t much of a VHS presence. DVD is just too simple and the players are much, much more reliable and cheaper.

  8. Tyrell says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Several years ago the local public library had a surplus sale and sold their 16 mm projectors at something like $25 for $700 original cost equipment. The films, including many Disney features, went for $10 and less for each.

  9. MBunge says:

    They were still making radio dramas all the way up until the early 1960s.

    Even losing the war to VHS, there were still 10s of thousands of Betamax machines out there. Since you already had the production capacity, why not keep servicing that market?

    Mike

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Tyrell: My late father had reels of 8 mm movies of us growing up. We had it transferred to VHS and more recently had that transferred to DVD.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    @Tyrell: My late father had reels of 8 mm movies of us growing up. We had it transferred to VHS and more recently had that transferred to DVD.

  12. Greg Bailey says:

    @Ron Beasley:
    I hope you copied from the 8mm film rather than the VHS!
    The bandwidth of video off VHS is pretty poor. Digital Standard Def. leaves it for dead. The image quality on the 8mm movies would be close to SD Digital, so no loss going to DVD.

  13. James Pearce says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    I wouldn’t believe the stories about casettes making a comeback.

    Not a comeback like vinyl in any case.

    I’ll tell you what though, as a bibliophile and a thrift store archivist, I’ve accumulated literally hundreds of books on tape (books on actual tape) for not very much money. I’m very fond of the digital format, too, being a loyal Audible subscriber for years now, but one benefit of listening to a book on tape versus a book on CD or via Audible’s app is you never lose your place.

    It’s, admittedly, not much of an advantage. Truly, they take up too much space. The sound quality depends. (Usually on how its previous owner treated it.) In the truck, the tape flips on its own, but I’ve got to do the honors on my old Sony boombox. And really what I do with them is record them digitally so I can listen to them on my phone.

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @James Pearce:..Not a comeback like vinyl in any case.

    Damned if I understand the veneration afforded 331/3 rpm albums. All they ever did was gather dust, get scratched and skip. Those turntables are energy hogs compared to any digital technology. Just the friction created by the tonearm dragging the record wastes energy that light scanning a disc for instance doesn’t even create.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @James Pearce: Problem with magnetic tape is it WILL have the signal die after a while….unless you’ve already copied it.