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Tape heads off

The video recorder has chewed its last tape. Its demise proves that no technology is immune from economic forces

UK high street electronics retailer Dixons has pressed eject on the video cassette recorder. With DVD players outselling VCRs by a ratio of 40 to one -- and DVD recorders rapidly heading towards the sub-£100 mark - the old technology can no longer earn its keep on the shelves.

The story of the VCR encapsulates the life story of many technologies. For the first time, we've seen a brand new market created, grow through a controversial and turbulent youth to ubiquity, only to head into obsolescence in under a generation. It's a striking memento mori for anyone who thinks that their pet technology is guaranteed to constantly evolve.

It's also a good reminder of how stupidity, blind greed, arrogance and fear are ingrained into big business. The format wars -- in which Sony's Beta system was neatly outflanked by JVC's VHS -- were lost for Beta by Sony's insistence on keeping control, reluctance to license to other manufacturers, high prices for spare parts and its refusal to make it easy to create a rental market for the tapes. It was much easier for hardware and software companies to use VHS -- an advantage that gave users more choice and better value. Sony could offer nothing worthwhile against that.

Meanwhile, the film industry was terrified that home videotaping would be the end of people watching movies. In ringing tones of apocalyptic fervour almost identical to those used by the RIAA today against peer-to-peer technology, the VCR was denounced as an evil force that would lay waste entire industries. Those views did not prevail, and VCRs made more money for the film-makers than even Hollywood could dream of.

Yet these lessons remain unlearned. The advocates of proprietary, closed solutions continue to fight against a true open market in ideas and distribution. Boosters of mature technologies continue to ignore signs that their markets are changing and moving away, relying on inertia and marketing spend to paper over the cracks. Keep a clear eye on what you expect and need from technology, and be ready to move on.