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A Product of Genius: A Eulogy for Sony Betamax (1975 – 2016)

Betamax (also called Beta, and referred to as such in the logo) 
is a consumer-level analog videocassette magnetic tape recording format developed by Sony, released in Japan on May 10, 1975.
The first Betamax introduced in America was the LV-1901 console, which included a 19" color monitor, and appeared in stores in early November, 1975. 
The cassettes contain .50 in (12.7 mm)-wide videotape in a design similar to the earlier, professional .75 in (19 mm) wide, U-matic format. 
The format is obsolete, having lost the videotape format war to VHS. Betamax recorders ceased production in 2002, but the format's cassette tapes were available until March 2016, when Sony discontinued them


The VHS format's defeat of the Betamax format became a classic marketing case study. Sony's attempt to dictate an industry standard backfired when JVC made the tactical decision to forgo Sony's offer of Betamax in favor of developing its own technology. JVC felt that accepting Sony's offer would yield results similar to the U-Matic deal, with Sony dominating.
By 1980, JVC's VHS format controlled 60% of the North American market. The large economy of scale allowed VHS units to be introduced to the European market at a far lower cost than the rarer Betamax units. In the United Kingdom, Betamax held a 25% market share in 1981, but by 1986, it was down to 7.5% and continued to decline further. By 1984, 40 companies made VHS format equipment in comparison with Beta's 12. Sony finally conceded defeat in 1988 when it, too, began producing VHS recorders (early models were made by Hitachi), though it still continued to produce Betamax recorders until 2002.

In Japan, Betamax had more success and eventually evolved into Extended Definition Betamax, with 500+ lines of resolution, but eventually both Betamax and VHS were supplanted by laser-based technology.

In March of 2016, Sony will finally stop manufacturing Betamax cassettes all-together.
The loser in a format war against VHS (developed by JVC) in the long ago 1970s and 1980s, the Betamax format first entered the American marketplace in November of 1975.

With cassettes sold in retail stores such as Sears and Radio Shack, Betamax, by some standards, should have been the winner in its pitched battle against the VHS tape format and consoles.
For example, Betamax featured superior picture and superior sound to its competitors and was described in promotional material as a “product of genius.”

The SL-5000, an early model of the player, could tape one show while you watched another, featured “express tuning,” could front-load cassettes (instead of top-load, like early VCRs) and featured “record functions on the left” side of the console; “playback functions on the right.

And, of course, it came from a well-respected name: Sony. But Betamax featured two terrible — and indeed, fatal — flaws.
The first was that the Betamax recorder/players were much more expensive than VHS players, and the second was that the Betamax cassettes — small, almost square devices — could originally only tape for up to 60 minutes.

A VHS cassette, by comparison, could tape up for up to two hours.
Global customers apparently wanted more affordable players, and more storage per tape.

Betamax attempted to strike back with later models such as its SL-8200, which could tape programs from TV for “up to two hours,” but by then it was too late.

Switching from VHS to Betamax meant that all your pre-recorded movies released by the studios, and all your taped-off-the-air programming would be incompatible. Consumers would have had to ditch everything they had collected and start over from square one.

The Betamax vs. VHS war ended with one clear winner, and it wasn’t Betamax.
Still, it will be a sad day, come March 2016, when Betamax officially enters the “obsolete” column.
Here are some advertisements for Sony Betamax from the 1970s and early 1980s:

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