Painful Truth: Betamax took 40 years to die

If you mentioned the Betamax format to someone in the late 1980s or 1990s, it was generally as part of a joke.

If you mention it to someone under 25 now, you might get a blank look.

And yet, it took the much-maligned video tape format from 1975 until now to finally die out completely. In fact, Sony just announced it will stop making new Betamax cassettes next spring. So, if you still have a Beta player sitting in your basement, stock up today.

Beta versus VHS was the classic format war of the late 20th century. It defined how we see format wars, in terms of winners and losers. Only one format could reign supreme! But the long, improbable survival of Betamax to 2016 shows that few format wars are as clear cut.

Format wars go back to at least the 19th century. They take place any time two inventors or two firms come to the market with essentially the same technology at the same time – but with variations that make it difficult to use both.

Rail gauges were one of the earliest. How far apart do you build railroad tracks? It makes sense to quickly settle the question, or you’d wind up with two competing and incompatible networks of railways.

Like Beta versus VHS, however, most format wars involved information and entertainment.

Wax cylinders versus flat records. Player piano designs. Electric versus steam versus internal combustion cars. Various sizes and speeds of records and record players. Apple versus IBM. Nintendo versus Playstation versus XBox. Eight-track versus cassette versus CD versus minidisk.

Some formats were just ahead of their time. Laserdiscs pre-dated standard DVDs by many years, and introduced many of the features that DVDs would later absorb, like commentary tracks. But they were large and very expensive, and never caught on outside of hard-core cinephiles.

VHS and Beta became synonymous with a format war because the winner seemed so clear and decisive.

The story is well known: both came out close together in the 1970s, and Sony’s Betamax was the “better” format – in terms of picture quality. But it was also more expensive, and it’s early tapes could only hold an hour of footage, so bring a big bag if you want to rent Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia for the weekend.

VHS became much, much more popular in just a few years. By the early 1990s, VHS and video were interchangeable terms.

So I was surprised to read that Beta never completely went away. I know that some people continued to use it for personal filming – but hadn’t digital video killed that, too? And certainly there are people whose old home movies were all on Beta – but digital conversion services have been around since the turn of the century.

But Sony wouldn’t have been making the tapes if someone, somewhere, wasn’t buying them. There was still a market, 30 years after Betamax was declared dead.

Many format wars end without a clear victor. Some get absorbed – the French proto-Internet Minitel still sort of exists, online. The video game console wars have been going on since the 1980s. Apple still makes their own machines, while everyone else churns out PCs.

And seemingly dead formats just become zombies, as long as there are nostalgic baby boomers and ironic hipsters willing to spend money on vinyl records and typewriter ribbons. And apparently, Betamax cassette tapes in 2015.


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