Posts Tagged: Betamax



Lessons From Betamax

Image by flickr user Nesster.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Sony and JVC waged a war between their respective Betamax and VHS video cassette formats.

Early consensus (my dad included) favoured the Betamax format and its superior image and picture quality. Beta also had the advantage of a two year head start over the VHS format.

And yet, Beta lost.

What went wrong for Sony and Beta? Many things, here are a few of them:

One: Cost – Beta was more expensive than VHS.

TWO: An Army of One – The Beta format was owned by only one company (Sony) while the VHS format was licensed by its owner (JVC) to dozens of other companies. These companies, each with their own profit motives, flooded the market with the VHS format.

THREE: Can It Do What I Need It To Do? – Initially, Beta could only offer recording times of up to 1 hour. VHS offered times up to 2 hours. How can you fit a 90 minute movie on a single Beta cassette? Simple: You can’t. See point Four.

FOUR: The Books Are More Important Than Your Library – Beta had an incredibly limited catalogue of movies on offer in the Beta format as compared to VHS. VHS would continue to increase and hold this advantage throughout the format war. A device whose explicit purpose is to consume media requires media to make it useful, valuable and coveted.

FIVE: Perceived Value – As the format war progressed, recording times were increased such that VHS offered recording times of up to 10 hours whereas Beta offered only 5. Didn’t matter that the vast majority of people would never use those 10 hours. Didn’t matter that recording in 10 hour mode resulted in abysmal picture and audio quality. The perception was that 10 is bigger than 5 and in the customer’s mind, bigger is typically better.

SIX: Men Will Be Men – Sony would not initially allow pornography to be distributed on the Beta format. VHS? No problems. And as we know, virtually all new media is driven – at least in part – to the masses by pornography. That’s not a moral statement, either, just a statement of fact.

SEVEN: Peer Pressure Is The Best Marketing There Is – VHS had a viral edge over Beta even back when people didn’t obnoxiously overuse the word ‘viral’ (as I just did). As more and more people began to opt for the VHS format, so too did their friends and family. One of the appeals of VHS was the ability to share tapes and home movies. Anyone who had a Beta system was left out of this virtuous circle of sharing and was – for all intents and purposes – forced to adopt the VHS format. The more people using the VHS format, the greater the gravitational pull towards it.

The reasons Betamax lost had absolutely nothing to do with quality of format, they had to do with marketing. The “best” technology simply isn’t always the best marketed. One could even argue that the “best” technology is often the worst marketed as the companies behind said technologies are blinded to their marketing needs by the sheer fact of their technology’s Superiority.

To this day my father still insists that Beta was “superior” to VHS, but that’s probably just so he can reconcile being caught on the losing side of the battle. He may have picked a losing horse, but damn, if he didn’t pick the best horse.

Doesn’t matter though, he still picked the wrong horse.

Superior don’t mean nothing. And there’s no reason to believe that doesn’t apply to transit technologies as much as it does to video formats.

(Note: My father has since moved on from his Betamax trauma and is the proud owner of a Blu-Ray DVD player.)

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