How Betamax bit the dust – and other tales of forgotten tech

January 4, 2016 by Laurence Murphy, The Conversation
Off to the great video library in the sky… Credit: Shutterstock

Sony are to no longer make Betamax video cassette tapes – something that will come as a surprise to many people who thought that Betamax had long since bitten the dust. But 28 years after it lost the battle to the VHS (or Vertical Helical Scan) format produced by JVC, Sony – which stopped manufacturing Betamax recorders in 2002 – will cease production of the tapes, too.

It's a long, strange tale, set against a technology landscape that has changed quickly. Betamax was the first major attempt to provide high-quality record and playback capabilities of broadcast and domestic material to the average home.

So why did VHS – a technically inferior standard – win the standardisation battle in Europe and worldwide? As with all technological advances, just having the best technical performer doesn't necessarily mean that you will succeed and get widescale adoption. The per-unit cost to produce and to the end user define, in most cases, how viable a new technology launch will be.

The deals that the VHS lobby made with film studios, the fact that the VHS cassette could hold more minutes of material, and the lower unit cost of VHS meant that Betamax's days as a domestic standard were always going to be numbered. Betamax lost the numbers game and lost the momentum. And the public's trust and desire are difficult to regain once they have wavered.

Of course, just because the public went with VHS doesn't mean that the industry didn't care about Betamax. Professional broadcasters used a variation on Betamax's core technology – Betacam, Betacam SP and Digital Betacam – for years after Betamax was no longer considered suitable for home use.

For the record, professionals prefer vinyl.

Round and round we go

But then many formats have fought similar battles. Vinyl was seen as a prime target for digital replacement when Philips launched its compact disc (CD) player – there was no stylus to replace and you didn't have to worry about the vinyl warping or getting significantly scratched.

But vinyl has a redeeming feature – it's an analogue system. When a vinyl disk plays it isn't a sampled, quantised, chopped-down and compressed version of the analogue music. Humans are analogue – our ears and eyes are analogue and as we can't see the matrix we don't assimilate digital directly – it has to be returned to an analogue expression for us to perceive it. Which may be one reason why vinyl is still hugely popular.

The nature of digitising discards information which is reconstituted later in the process – for a purist, this loss of information is unacceptable. That's why musicians and DJs tend to like vinyl and will fight to keep the standard alive.

Blu-ray vs HD DVD

The last significant disc technology standard battle fought in the home was between Blu-ray and HD DVD. On paper, HD DVD had it in the bag. A high-definition extension of an existing global standard, HD DVD had the early backing of major film studios while Blu-ray looked to be a riskier, unsupported option.

Blu-ray was a new technology and format – more delicate than HD DVD and initially more costly to produce as it involved completely new production facilities.

Blu-ray's success can be attributed to many factors but one of the most significant was the inclusion of a Blu-ray drive in the Sony Playstation 3 games console, a master stroke of forward planning and a significant gamble.

Sony was a major player in Blu-ray as a standard and it wanted a way to give the public access to the new disks – so they made a Blu-ray player the main drive in the PS3. Even though the games didn't benefit from Blu-ray technology at the time, the move positioned a next generation Blu-ray drive in the living room of every gamer with a PS3.

Sony made significant losses on the PS3 in its first years as it was such an expensive drive. But the picture quality of Blu-ray began to gain ground as Blu-rays could be seen in full HD and, once the cinema companies aligned themselves with Blu-ray, the penetration in the living room market proved to be the long-game tipping point which meant that it became the standard for high definition disk delivery.

Toshiba, the main backer of HD DVD, made substantial losses when they called time on HD DVD as a standard. Manufacturers are very wary of another format and an all-out standards war isn't now viewed as good for business.

Ultra high-definition Blu-ray (UHD) is due for release in early 2016, the first UH DTV physical media standard for the home.

Blu-ray UHD could be the last significant physical non-streamed delivery standard for the home. The explosion in the streamed delivery of music, film and media through providers such as Netflix and Amazon, accessible from the Cloud and mobile devices, coupled with improved broadband speeds means that the need for a physical disk or delivery standard is debatable.

Disks could quite quickly become as redundant a technology as Betamax – certainly as long as the internet works and continues to develop.

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10 comments

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TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2016
"Humans are analogue – our ears and eyes are analogue and as we can't see the matrix we don't assimilate digital directly"

Well as far as video is concerned, it has always been digital.

"There is a large difference in frame rate between film, which runs at 24.0 frames per second, and the NTSC standard, which runs at approximately 29.97 (10 MHz×63/88/455/525) frames per second."

-and our brains do indeed do the assimilating.
Squirrel
3 / 5 (2) Jan 04, 2016
Human ears and brains are simply not sharp enough to note the difference between vinyl and CD (or MP3 for that matter). Its placebo and status showing off. Vinyl was pure hell with those bloody repeating clicks when they (as they always did) got scratched--a technology well worth putting forgotten in the bin of history.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2016
Human ears and brains are simply not sharp enough to note the difference between vinyl and CD (or MP3 for that matter). Its placebo and status showing off. Vinyl was pure hell with those bloody repeating clicks when they (as they always did) got scratched--a technology well worth putting forgotten in the bin of history.
And yet... theyre still selling them in barnes and noble. And turntables in best buy.
http://www.bestbu...=6185235

-Maybe youre missing something.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Jan 04, 2016
When a vinyl disk plays it isn't a sampled, quantised, chopped-down and compressed version of the analogue music


Music on a vinyl IS heavily compressed to keep the needle from bouncing off the groove. There is much much more information lost on a vinyl by the process, and after an average 60 play-throughs the grooves wear down and kill the high frequency response.

The reason why "purists" like vinyl is entirely in the marketing and mythology, and the reason why the rest use it is because of style and practical concerns like DJs mixing records by hand.

Human ears and brains are simply not sharp enough to note the difference between vinyl


Not only that, human brains do not percieve things objectively. People identify a vinyl record's sound as "clearer" and "more detailed" due to the hiss added to the sound by the stylus dragging in a groove.

It's the same effect as hearing a distant radio in the barely audible A/C hum. The brain invents the sound.
Eikka
5 / 5 (3) Jan 04, 2016
VHS wasn't technically inferior. It simply made a different tradeoff in recording density on the tape.

The slower the tape ran, the longer it would run, but the image quality would decrease due to less bandwidth. Run a VHS tape faster, and it can record just as well as Betamax.

The practical difference between the two was that Sony simply refused to let a Betamax tape run longer than 60 minutes, which meant that movie studios would have to release a feature-length film on two cassettes, and consumers would have to sit up and change tape in the middle of the movie.

Sony has always made completely idiotic business moves with their media formats. They've managed to kill not only Betamax, but the Minidisc, the MemoryStick and the Universal Media Disc formats, all of which were technically great at their time of introduction but never caught on because of Sony's licensing policies or other technical decisions that prevented adoption.

Lex Talonis
not rated yet Jan 04, 2016
Blu Ray failed because the pricing was so astronomically high.

Sure the disks could store heaps - but they are a total rip off - and that is where sony fucked up.....

The disk storage era was OVER, sony came in pricing them as the next greatest thing, and the prices were way tooo high...

The old DVD - 4.5G now like 20c a disk if bought on a spindle of 100.

ONE 50G blue ray was like $50 each...

The burners and the double sided double layer disks, were impossibly priced and hard to get..

As a storage medium it held some promise.

But when hard drives are coming out in terrorbites, buying a LOT of blue ray disks, got really expensive, really quickly.

People just by passed them, and went to HDD back up.

And Sony could stick it's over priced hard ware up it's arse.....
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 04, 2016
Disks could quite quickly become as redundant a technology as Betamax – certainly as long as the internet works and continues to develop.


Optical discs are already redundant, but the need for personal data storage out of the cloud will never really go away.

The next world war will sever international internet connections and disrupt availability of universal streaming services and data hosting. Reliable and transportable data medium that cannot be intercepted by online wiretapping will become valued again.
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 04, 2016
https://en.wikipe...rmat_war

When Betamax was introduced in Japan and the United States in 1975, its Beta I speed of 1.57 inches per second (ips) offered a slightly higher horizontal resolution (250 lines vs 240 lines horizontal NTSC), lower video noise, and less luma/chroma crosstalk than VHS, and was later marketed as providing pictures superior to VHS's playback.

However the introduction of Beta II speed, 0.79 ips (two-hour mode), to compete with VHS' two-hour Standard Play mode (1.31 ips) reduced Betamax's horizontal resolution to 240 lines.[6]

The extension of VHS to VHS HQ increased the apparent resolution to 250 lines so that overall a Betamax/VHS user could expect virtually identical luma resolution and chroma resolution


The curious bit about the whole story is, why do people want to believe that Betamax was the better format when they were actually almost completely identical?

It seems to correlate with anti-market narratives.
Nik_2213
not rated yet Jan 09, 2016
Slightly tangential, but who'd want to keep all their files 'on the cloud' when the wwweb clogs up at peak times and it takes five minutes to load a page...
Eikka
not rated yet Jan 09, 2016
Slightly tangential, but who'd want to keep all their files 'on the cloud' when the wwweb clogs up at peak times and it takes five minutes to load a page...


People who need off-site backups, and all sorts of "travelling salesmen" who risk getting their computers scanned or impounded at customs and border crossings.

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