A typical ad for Sony’s Betamax video recorder. Credit: Flickr/Nesster, CC BY
Recently, Sony announced that they will stop making Betamax tapes. This made me reflect on how the introduction of the first VCRs were a huge change in the way people watched TV, allowing them to time shift, that is record shows and play them back later. The “format war” between Betamax and VHS caused Betamax to lose market share, even though Betamax was a superior format technically, VHS could record more hours and that made it more popular with consumers. Betamax evolved into Betacam, an analog component format used in news gathering and field production.
Betamax was also the format that started the infamous Sony v. Universal City Studios case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Fortunately the studios lost, later allowing them to make money off of cassette rentals and sales. Ironically, Universal would later be bought by Matsushita, one of the world’s largest VCR manufacturers at that time.
Akio Morita was a founder, and for many years, the CEO of Sony. He was the Steve Jobs of Japan. During his tenure Sony came up with many consumer electronic advances such as the Trinitron, the Mavica still camera, the SDDS film sound system, DAT, the MiniDisc, the Walkman and along with Philips, the S/PDIF audio interface, the CD and Blu-Ray. (Full disclosure, I used to work at Sony developing HDTV.)
Akio Morita is not interviewed in part 3, but that segment can be seen here.
The introduction of the home-use VCR had caused the biggest stir and created the greatest expectations for Sony since the launch of the Trinitron. Sony sales branches throughout Japan were buzzing about Betamax, and how to launch it in their regions became their number one priority. From the pre-launch stage, study sessions and training seminars explaining how to connect a Betamax to a television were frequent. At that time, however, annual domestic demand for VCRs was still less than 100,000 units. Morita was brimming with confidence when he made his announcement about the upcoming video age. Would home-use VCRs become popular? The industry had its doubts. At any rate, full-scale production of Betamax looked ready to roll. However, in the same year, something happened which took Sony by surprise.