Sony's "Betamax" is the 12.7 mm (0.5 inch) home videocassette tape recording format derived from the earlier, professional 19.1 mm (0.75 inch) U-matic video cassette format. Like the video home recording system VHS, it had no guard band, and used azimuth recording to reduce cross-talk. The "Betamax" name is said to derive from the Japanese phrase beta gaki (raw + write), however, as a pun, the designed trademark incorporated the Greek letter "beta"; Sanyo marketed its version as the "Betacord", but it, too, was referred to as "Beta." Sony introduced the Betamax home video system in 1975.
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The Betamax cassette is smaller than the VHS cassette, and the format is said to produce a sharper picture, although the difference lessened as both technologies progressed. Other claimed advantages included a straighter tape path through the machine, making start-up faster after inserting the cassette, though that was not intrinsic to the format, and the transitions from "play" to "fast forward" or to "rewind" were faster, but only because (unlike in VHS format) the tape was not first unthreaded from the mechanism, thus leading to greater tape wear during fast winding. A little-used capability of the Betamax format was recording in audio-only mode. By using the entire bandwidth for sound, the helical scanning recording head of the videotape technology allowed for very high-fidelity reproduction compared to normal, stationary-head audio tape recorders.
Technically, the Betamax format has more video bandwidth available than the VHS format since the drum is slightly larger, and therefore each field is spread over a longer stripe. At the same time, the tape itself moves more slowly. This is the reason Betamax video tapes are significantly smaller than VHS tapes, as they have less tape in them for a given running time.
Struggle and failure in the home market
In domestic use, Betamax lost to VHS despite Sony's great marketing effort. In his autobiography, Sony's founder, Akio Morita, attributed that loss to Sony's difficulties in licensing the format to other companies, thus allowing the technically inferior VHS format's establishing itself in the market. Others believe the Betamax format's shorter recording time retarded its early adoption by consumers, a problem that, in the 1980s, led Sony to a technological race to increase Betamax's capacity; another factor was each format's relative availability in video tape rental stores.
One claim which has been made is that the failure of Betamax was driven by the porn industry's preference for "cheap convenient VHS". Whilst claims that this was because Sony disallowed the sex industry from licensing the format are unlikely since the licenses applied to the production of equipment, the sex industry's reluctance to use Betamax may have been due to the short, one-hour time limit on the original Betamax tapes. 1
Once VHS became the base of home video cassette recording, the rest of Betamax's market collapsed. Subsequent VHS developments, such as "VHS-HQ," and multi-head technology, closed the gap on Betamax's technical superiority. Eventually, Sony started producing VHS-format video cassette recorders, thus conceding defeat in the "format war." Their last American model was marketed in 1993, and Betamax VCR production outside Japan ended in 1998. Sony continued manufacturing Betamax VCRs for the Japanese market until 2002, so, officially announcing the Betamax consumer line's end.
The legacy of Betamax
The VHS format's defeat of the superior Betamax format became a classic marketing case study, now identified with the verbal phrase "to Betamax," wherein a proprietary technology format is overwhelmed in the market by a format allowing multiple, competing, licensed manufacturers, as in: "Apple Betamaxed themselves out of the PC market."
Sony succeeded greatly in professional television production. Betacam, and its successors, became one of the standard formats; production houses use Betacam videocassettes to exchange footage among themselves. The VHS-derived professional format called M2, collapsed because the Betacam format had become the de-facto standard, mirroring the Betamax/VHS situation in the domestic video arena.
One other major consequence of the Betamax technology's introduction to the U.S. was the lawsuit Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios, with the U.S. Supreme Court determining home videotaping legal in the United States, wherein home videotape cassette recorders were a legal technology since they had "substantial non-infringing uses." A similar line of argument is used in the pending MGM v. Grokster case, where it remains to be seen whether the United States Supreme Court will apply the "substantial non-infringing uses" precedent to peer-to-peer file sharing.
- The dirty secret that drives new technology: it's porn, John Arlidge, The Observer, 2002/03/03, retrieved 2005/01/10 from http://observer.guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,661094,00.html
- video cassette recorder
- Sony Corp. of America v. Universal City Studios, Inc.
- network externality
- whole product
- tipping point
- Betamax PALsite – over 350 pages of Betamax information, running since 1997
- The 'Total Rewind' VCR museum, covering Betamax and other vintage formats
- The Betamax Information Guide
- AFU's take on VHS vs. Beta
- The Guardian's take on VHS vs. Beta
- Essay: Pornography drives technology
- SONY CORP. v. UNIVERSAL CITY STUDIOS, INC., 464 U.S. 417 (1984)
- The Betamax format in the UK