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Innovation

The Betamax VCR: Gone, but not forgotten

Sony signals the end of an era of glorious failure
Written by Graham Hayday, Contributor on

Sony signals the end of an era of glorious failure

Sony has finally written the epitaph for the Betamax video casette recorder, many years after the hugely more successful VHS format pushed the technology into an early grave.

The Japanese electronics giant announced on Tuesday that it will make just 2,000 more Betamax machines before discontinuing the line altogether, bringing an end to over 25 years of history.

"With digital machines and other new recording formats taking hold in the market, demand has continued to decline, and it has become difficult to secure parts," Sony said in a statement.

In the year to March 2002, Sony manufactured just 2,800 units, which compares somewhat unfavourably with the 2.3 million it made in Betamax's peak year of 1984, and the 18 million shipped in all.

The Betamax story is a fine example of how being the first to market doesn't always pay, and that superior technology doesn't always win out: many people still believe Matsushita's VHS was Beta's poor relation.

Take these postings from one of the many websites (http://www.palsite.info) devoted to the format:

"In January 1986, my dad brought home a Sanyo Beta VCR so we could watch rented movies and tape some shows. I was nine back then, and had no idea what Beta and VHS were, but in the last few years, I've realised that Beta is of course, the superior format.

"It is now March of 1997, and the good old Beta VCR is still running. It isn't used much now since it's mono and has an analog tuner, but I am going to start looking for a used Beta hi-fi to do some time shifting. My mother has tried to throw it out a few times, but I think she's finally realised that you can't just go out and buy a new one all that easily. Long live Beta!"

Another beta fan, Stewart Belfield, had this to say: "I am new to the net and thought I would try searching the word Betamax. Most expecting a Sony Page stating 'old format that no one other than Stewart still uses'. Well I was extremely glad that I am not the only one and I can now cancel the appointment I had made with the local doctor."

In an eery parallel of today's music industry, movie and TV giant Universal City Studios took Sony to court in 1976 in an attempt to stop the development of Betamax. It thought that home taping would sound the death knell for the industry.

Sony will continue to offer repairs and tapes for the format. The move will not affect any of Sony's Betacam products.

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