Format Wars

Episode I: VHS vs. Betamax

Before there was Blu-ray, there were DVDs and VHS. How did these standards become the widely accepted standard? VHS's rise to prominence goes back almost forty years.

Home media was a brand-new concept in 1975 when Sony developed its Betamax cassette tapes. These were the successor to the first widespread videocassette   the composite U-matic system. Sony intended Betamax to be a sole standard for all home media, just like U-matic had been.

However, JVC had different plans. The company wasn't happy that Sony was dominating the emerging home-entertainment market and decided to develop its own videocassette standard. Thus, VHS was born in 1976.

While VHS and Betamax were similar concepts (JVC and Sony had originally collaborated on a unified standard but the results never made it off the drawing board), they were different enough that VHS tapes would not work in Betamax machines and vice versa. This set the stage for one of these cassette types to ultimately rise to enjoy decades of widespread use while the other fell into obscurity.

Betamax was first on the scene and was technically superior in many ways. It featured a higher resolution picture and lower video noise than VHS. However, VHS cassettes offered two-hour play times, which was critical because they could accommodate most movie releases for home media.

Betamax was also more expensive, and JVC licensed its VHS technology to many other consumer-electronics companies. Therefore, VHS was abundantly available and less expensive than Betamax was. With quality on one side and abundance on the other, the tech world divided into two separate camps.

In the Betamax corner were tech giants Sanyo, Pioneer, Toshiba, NEC and, of course, Sony. The VHS corner consisted of its creator, JVC, as well as Hitachi, Sharp, Mitsubishi and Akai. The battle for videocassette supremacy had many facets   technological, political and otherwise. However, in the end, it all came down to marketing.

Sony rightly believed it had a superior product. However, the company erred in believing that quality alone would sell its product. Betamax was expensive to produce and Sony put a high margin on the product in order to make a profit. Furthermore, Betamax was a proprietary standard, which means that no other company could produce Betamax videocassettes.

While JVC developed VHS as its standard, the company allowed other companies to make their own versions of VHS tapes. Therefore, multiple companies were making their own cassette tapes and players, which were all compatible with each other. This transformed VHS into a de facto open standard. Marketing VHS's compatibility and choice eventually led to its ultimate victory in this format war.

By 1978, only two years after the launch of VHS, it was clear that it had become the accepted favorite of the market. For the next few years, Betamax was kept alive by an increasingly small number of loyal videophiles who appreciated its superior quality. However, it never gained full acceptance among the public. By 1988, VHS controlled 95 percent of the videocassette market. Sony admitted defeat and began producing its own brand of VHS tapes.

Many tech scholars view the VHS vs. Betamax battle as a template for format wars to come. The most recent and well known is the high-definition format war between HD DVD and Blu-ray Discs. Interestingly, Sony played a role in the outcome of that war by installing a Blu-ray player in its popular PlayStation gaming console, although that's another story.

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