How Sony’s Betamax lost to JVC’s VHS Cassette Recorder

Stories of Tech Failure: Betamax This mighty machine sparked a revolution in our use of media. It’s a Sony Betamax video cassette recorder from 1979. This monster weighs about 36 pounds. The engineer in me find it fascinating: there is nothing digital, it’s a truly analog machine all moving pieces and parts. Early adopters of the Betamax used it to record television shows a revolutionary concept at the time because prior to the Betamax you had to watch a show when it was broadcast. It threatened the entertainment industry so much that in 1979, they argued that recording television shows at home infringed on their copyright. It all came to a head in a Supreme Court case Sony Corporation of America versus Universal City Studios where five justices allowed home recording. Although Sony won this court battle, they ultimately lost out to a machine that used this size tape.   This is a VHS recorder made by Sony’s great rival JVC. Both machines solved the same problem: How to store information compactly on a tape. Here’s the brilliant innovation used by both machines.   The machine grabs the tape, drags it forward, as this silver drum starts to spin rapidly. The drum has two electromagnets (called heads) arranged on opposite sides of the drum that read the magnetic information on the tape. That rotating head allowed for a compact recorder: in many previous recorders the magnetic heads didn’t move, only the tape. Because there was a limit to how fast the tape could move, it took a lot of tape; about a seven inch reel to record an hour, which meant that a movie would need two 7-inch reels inside a cassette. So, the rotating heads dramatically reduced the amount of tape needed, reducing the size to where it could be easily held in a cassette. So, if the machines are so similar why did Betamax lose to JVC? Many thought the betamax machine would win: It had the better image quality and the Betamax is decidedly better built. Compare ejecting a tape on the Betamax to the VHS. First, watch the Betamax. Note how smooth it is. And then watch the VHS. That’s abrupt and will wear out the mechanism. Yet, to my engineer’s eye the VHS was the better solution. First, the VHS was lighter than the Betamax: 29 and a half lbs compared to 36 lbs for the this Betamax machine. That’s a huge difference for a mass manufactured object. It impacts everything from material costs to assembly time to shipping costs. So, at the low end of the market the VHS machines were cheaper than Sony’s Betamax. Second, the earliest Betamax tapes played for only one hour, VHS played for 2 hours enough time for a movie. The ultimate killer, though, was the rental market. While, Betamax focused its ads and energies on time shifting; their ads featured headlines like “Watch whatever, whenever” while JVC, the maker of the VHS system, created relationships with the nascent video rental industry. When this market grew, VHS dominated in titles. While you could for a while find both formats eventually retailers began giving shelf space to the slightly more dominant brand, which then dominated even more. So, the Betamax versus VHS dispels the notion that simply being first to market is the most important issue.  It reminds us that technical excellence in one area isn’t enough here the superior picture quality of Betamax, but that all technical aspects matter. For any mass manufactured object, the winner is usually the one that is just good enough. I’m Bill Hammack, the EngineerGuy

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100 thoughts on “How Sony’s Betamax lost to JVC’s VHS Cassette Recorder

  1. I grew up in my grandfather's Radio Shack store. I watched the battle first hand. What we saw at the time was the victory of "open source" over "proprietary". Only Sony made their cassettes and players; they allowed nobody else to do so. VHS licensed their technology to anybody who wanted to make it, both cassette and player manufacturers. It was a beautiful lesson in economics. It created massive competition among the various VHS manufacturers to continually innovate and refine their products, the first major consequence of which was lower and lower prices year over year. Yes they made deals with major rental companies as explained here, but that was just the final nail in the coffin. Rental companies like Block Buster wanted more VHS on their shelves because of customer demand for VHS.

  2. Better marketing and JVC gave away licenses vs Sony being arrogant which cost them the market share even though Sony had more innovative features such as not having to retract the tape when rewinding or fast forward.
    The rental market really did them in.

  3. This is a thumbs-upper video clip. It's a little discouraging to see that "just good enough" is good enough for the consumer. Too bad.

  4. I liked beta better…I just liked that it was smaller. What really pisses me off is the mini camcorder cause then you have to put the little tape into the bigger vhs tape to watch it. What a pain in the ass.

  5. I was born in 1978 and grew up with a VCR. Our world was always VHS; I had no idea that there was a competitive format. Everyone I knew was on VHS.

  6. It simply cost more. That's it. People bought the cheaper and inferior VHS.
    Also, Sony wanting to make it proprietary didn't help much.

  7. When you look inside a VHS and compare it to the mechanism of a Beta machine, it's easy to see that the simplicity of a VHS versus the complex Beta won out. Once HQ VHS came out, it was no contest. The utter simplicity of late versions of VHS mechanisms is truly amazing.

  8. Betamax was killed because you could copy a VHS movie because the Betamax ignored the macrovision protection. I copied many movies for my brothers kids to play a hundred times so the original $40 tapes would not wear out. ANd anyway news stations used beta cams for ages…

  9. Who can ever forget those rental stores. Cheesy local to big bad Blockbuster. Buy popcorn and candy at the checkout. Home theatre

  10. When the adult entertainment industry adopted the VHS format, the Beta-Max format died. It was the adult entertainment industry that was the first profitable business on the internet.

  11. Betamax was the superior product due to better tape writing speed (sharper picture quality) and the tape loading mechanism. (Engineers and techies all swore by Betamax.)

    The initial problem was tape length as "time shifting" (recording off air) was its initial use. Consumers couldn't record a full movie or sports game. Time shifting was their brilliant Supreme Court argument that resulted in a landmark victory for all recording devices. Consumers were not "pirating"; they were merely shifting time to their convenience.

    Sony didn't license their patent to many, and by the time they did, it was too late. (You can add Aiwa to the list of licensees.) So VHS machines proliferated and saturated the market.

    The kiler issue was when home recording was eclipsed by video rentals. The Blockbuster chain didn't exist yet. There were local mom and pop video stores. Few could afford to carry inventory in two formats. Once more and more video stores moved to just carrying VHS prerecorded tapes the battle was lost.

    In sum: the better product lost due to poor marketing decisions.

    P.S. Sony was not "arrogant" at that time. When Sony produced the first tape recorders, an opera singer, Norio Ohga, wrote a highly critical letter about them to Sony founder, Akio Morita. Morita's response was legendary: he hired Ohga. Years later Ohga became Sony's CEO.

  12. Even still i don’t understand why VHS beat Beta. I felt beta was so much better. Product weight didn’t matter for TVs, or cars so I think it was more about having better business practices.

  13. The betamax had lost the VCR war before video rentals became legal. It used to be illegal to rent movies but legal to buy them though movies were often in the $70 to $80 range a piece. I went to a retailer early on to buy a betamax and they only had 5 movies out on tape where VHS had over 60 (and cheaper). The VHS machines were less expensive also but still I paid over $600 for my first one (1980's money). Also more record time on VHS. Except for betamax picture quality which was only slight. The first video store I rented at got around the law with semantics. You could not say you were "renting" a movie in the store but rather "previewing". If you wanted to "preview" a purchased movie then you would pay $4 for 3 days of "preview". If you wanted to purchase that movie then fine … or you could take it back and then "preview" another for $4.

  14. Sorry Sony blew it by not licensing to the porn industry. Why do you think all those vhs players where in homes even before Block buster showed up.

  15. Remember when you could get videos from petrol stations and off-licences,ritz video,and who could forget the video man who used to turn up outside your home in a mk3 escort

  16. When I was a kid we had that EXACT Betamax player. To this day I still remember my father carrying up the stairs to our apartment.

  17. The best quality VCR I've ever used was a Super Beta 4 head. This replaced a Sanyo 2 head beta. Actually, the Sanyo had a better picture and equal or better special effects; freeze frame, slow mo, as a friend's 4 head VHS. And a typical movie easily fit on a 750 tape.

  18. Quality doesnt matter when the only machine you could afford was a VHS machine. And as time goes on VHS became better in quality. The initial difference in quality between Betamax and VHS in the mid to late 70's was irrelevant to consumers by the early to mid 80s.

    Plus when it comes to picture quality you're assuming that the average person had a TV that could show off that difference. TVs back then were also expensive back then. People didnt want to have to pay extra for a good TV and betamax.

  19. My favorite married with children episode is where kelly complains why are we the only family in the neighborhood with beta?

  20. Weight and time length of tape had nothing to do with it by the early 80's, Sony Betamax was far superior of the media industry was using the format for years after JVC cornered the film rental market which was the only reason for the demise of Betamax. Today you can buy a major block buster film on DVD for much less than you paid for a 3 hour tape back then. How times have changed even DVD is now considered old fashioned

  21. I can remember on special occasions my parents renting a VHS for a weekend. We would watch new releases such as Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, and the Breakfast Club! Good times!

  22. 98% of films were ruined on VHS anyway due to pan and scan which chops the films up, destroying their widescreen presentation. VHS has its time and it was bad in retrospect.

  23. Between college and graduate school, I sold them both at Marshall Field & Co., at that time, Chicago's iconic department store. This would have been about 1977-78, and a Betamax could set you back about $1100.

  24. We had a Grundig, along with Philips it was the Video 2000 format. It gave the best picture and sound quality out of all 3 systems during the 'video format wars'. Tapes were double sided too. I believe it came too late to market and failed.

  25. Who can still remember "ultra slow mode" where you could record up to 8 hours on a 240 minute tape, albeit with a slight drop in audio & video quality – thát was AWESOME!

  26. Although he is correct in his assumptions the real killer for Betamax was the fact that Sony wanted a licensing fee to manufacture Beta and JVC didn’t. Why pay a big fee to Sony when you can avoid the fee and design your own on the VHS format for free?

  27. Betamax was used by many TV professionals until the turn of the century. The quality was way better. That's the main criteria for makers of films.

  28. I was in Columbia few days ago someone on the street was selling another tape wasn't vhs and looked bigger video system no idea what it was.

  29. And I tought that it was the porn industry that decided the fate of Betamax because SONY didn't want't it's product involved with such industry.

  30. Remember those early video rental days all too well. My local video shop had one tiny little corner dedicated to Beta… and that was it. Most of the (admitedly few) Beta tape we rented were forgetable films, though I vauguely remember Conan the Barbarian and Superman III, both of which were Thorn EMI titles in the U.K. Unlike other companies, I think they put a bit more effort into the Betamax rental market, but the big studios didn't seem to care… I vividly remember going over a neighbor's house just so we could watch Return of the Jedi, when it was released on VHS in 1986 ; I was three years old at the time.

  31. Actually, I used both systems back in the early 80s, and although Betamax is often said to be superior to VHS, the difference wasn't that great! Plus VHS was innovative, with VHS-C and Super VHS for example. And if all that wasn't enough, I find drum wear to be a problem on Betamax (causing tape drag on rewind) but not so much of an issue on VHS!

  32. The real reason Sony was "too proud to beg" (for money, public attention, market share). It thought that once it excels in product the rest will come for granted. An engineering approach and so wrong… There were so many companies formed by the engineers that have fallen into the same trap. Fortunately Sony is still there unlike SG, Sun, DEC, Compaq, you name it…

  33. You could always tell the owners of BETA VRCs in video libraries. They were the one who had 3 movies to choose from and were muttering to themselves, "I can't believe I paid $1500.00 for a GOD DAMN CLOCK!!!"

  34. I miss my old 1970 vintage Sansui stereo system. And Dual 501 turntable and Advent cassette deck. Oh, the Infinity speakers, too.

  35. Another example that the best product not always win. Blackberry with their Blackberry 10 Operating system. Was waaay better, faster, reliable, intuitive, true multitasking, secure, etc.. but with no app market.

  36. I still have a working Betamax. Sound quality is great. Now if you'll excuse me I'm gonna go watch The Wiz on Betamax and get down with my funky bad self.

  37. Back in 1980, I lugged a Betamax recorder around in a large leather case strapped to my side while holding a camera and battery pack that were just as large, so I could tape our High School football games for the athletic dept.

  38. I'm NOT so sure about the 'TRULY ANALOG' machine claim, especially when you immediately showed the inside with multiple PCBs..

  39. Not to be adversarial, but this is a well-known case study for failure and none of those aspects are THE reason for Betamax's demise. The major reason for the failure was that Sony refused to release the patent to other manufacturers. This meant that the technology was restricted to the unsustainable model Sony had created for itself. Lower-priced variations, produced by other electronics manufacturers would have pushed this technology to the fore.

  40. Also, RCA wanted to sell a machine that would record a typical NFL game on tv (3-4 hours) on one tape. Sony said no to RCA requests and the rest is history.

  41. Betamax lost on the domestic market but in a modified form dominated the pro newsgathering broadcast market for decades with Betacam, that initially used tapes identical to the betamax cassette.

  42. I perfer rape over disc because it fun to feels that’s all, really only reason I like physical vs. digital because I can feel and see it

  43. "The winner is usually the one that is just good enough". Corporations hire. promote and maintain staff levels the same way. IMO, most of said people suck at their job, but 80% good is all that is required. No wonder I rarely get what I f-ing ordered. 😉

  44. The death-blow of BetaMax was when the porn industry choose VHS as it's new medium. That was IT!!!! Had nothing to do with the "mainstream" rental movie market, as that didn't even exist at the time! It was the Porn industry that was the deciding factor. Sony lost it. VHS won it. Sony was absolutely the better product though.

  45. “People thought it would come down to pixel rate or refresh rate, and they're pretty much the same. What it came down to was a combination between gamers and porn. Now, whichever format porno backs is usually the one that becomes the uh most successful. But, you know, Sony, every PlayStation 3 has a Blu-ray in it.” Kevin, Tropic Thunder

  46. There's some parallels with the Sega Saturn, here. It was first to market, but its 3D rendering capabilities were kludged onto what was supposed to be a dedicated 2D machine after seeing crowd response to the Playstation. It was also more expensive. Being able to do 2D REALLY well (some of the most graphically impressive 2D Saturn games rival modern hand-drawn, HD games in visual quality, and with memory expansion carts, it was one of the first systems to provide true arcade-perfect conversions at an affordable price point) and hitting first just wasn't enough to make up for the expense and markedly inferior 3D capabilities.

  47. I love these videos but it really bugs me that an engineer gives all his measurements in US customary units and not metric!

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