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The Betamax vs VHS Format War

Sony's Betamax video standard was introduced in 1975, followed a year later by JVC's VHS. For around a decade the two standards battled for dominance, with VHS eventually emerging as the winner.

The victory was not due to any technical superiority (Betamax is arguably a better format), but to several factors. Exactly how and why VHS won the war has been the subject of intense debate. The commonly-held belief is that the technically superior Betamax was beaten by VHS through slick marketing. In fact the truth is more complex and there were a number of reasons for the outcome.

Sony's founder, Akio Morita, claimed that licensing problems between Sony and other companies slowed the growth of Betamax and allowed VHS to become established. However most commentators have played down this issue and cited other reasons as being more important.

It is certainly true that VHS machines were initially much simpler and cheaper to manufacture, which would obviously be an attraction to companies deciding which standard to back. It has also been reported that Sony inadvertently gave its competitors a helping hand by revealing key aspects of Betamax technology which were then incorporated into VHS.

In any case, manufacturers divided themselves into two camps: On the Betamax side were Sony, Toshiba, Sanyo, NEC, Aiwa, and Pioneer. On the VHS side were JVC, Matsushita (Panasonic), Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Sharp, and Akai.

For consumers, the most immediately obvious difference between the two formats was the recording length. Standard Betamax tapes lasted 60 minutes — not long enough to record a movie. Conversely, the 3-hour VHS tapes were perfect for recording television programmes and movies. Sony did adapt and offer various solutions for longer recording, but it was too late. The issue of recording time is often cited as the most defining factor in the war.

One more issue is worthy of note—pornography. There is a claim that adult content was not available on Betamax (possibly because Sony would not allow it) while it was becoming readily available on VHS. Whether or not this was really a factor is a contentious topic. Many sources have referred to it as fact (including Wikipedia) while others have made a campaign of debunking the "Myth of Betamax & porn". In researching this article I was unable to find any substantiated evidence that pornography sales significantly influenced the outcome of the war.

At some point and for some reason the choice of rental movies on VHS became better than Betamax. It is arguable how this situation came to be, but once it happened, there was no turning back. Bitter Betamax owners cringed in their ever-decreasing corner of the video store while VHS owners gloated.

The war was over by the late 1980s, although supporters of Betamax have helped keep the format going in a small niche market. Betamax production in America ended in 1993, and the last Betamax machine in the world was produced in Japan in 2002.

Of course, both Betamax and VHS were eventually made obsolete by digital technology.

Author: ,  Originally published: 2005-05-01,  Last updated: 2008-01-08