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History of the Beta Tape

By Christian Roemer

Beta Tape, also called Betamax, is a weird film technology that existed mainly during the late 70s and early 80s. Even though Betamax lost the format war to VHS, it’s still an interesting technology. While it never really made it big time--Sony discontinued its production in 2002--it still has an interesting story.

Why Betamax?

In a different world, we might be asking, “Why not Betamax?” Like most technologies, Betamax wasn’t invented in a vacuum. Companies were inventing new, competing products all of the time, and the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner for whether a particular product works out or not was the consumer. 

In this case, Betamax lost, but let’s talk about it anyway.

Betamax and VHS basically did the same thing, albeit in slightly different ways. They were both film technologies, and they even looked similar. They were basically black plastic cases with video film inside. They were even pretty much the same size, with the Betamax actually being a little bit smaller. The picture resolution between the two was basically the same too, with Betamax slightly edging out VHS. That means, even though betamax was smaller and had better picture quality, it still lost out to VHS.

So what happened?

Before we get into Betamax vs. VHS, let’s talk about a similar scenario that played out a bit more recently: HDDVD vs. BluRay. This battle waged during the mid 2000s, and I remember specifically thinking to myself at Best Buy one time, “Hmm, HDDVD or BluRay. What’s the difference? BluRay has blue boxes and HDDVD boxes are red. BluRay sounds cooler, sooo, I think I like that one better.”

When it comes down to it, the difference between the BluRay and HDDVD was marketing. That’s pretty much what happened with Betamax and VHS.

Since the two formats were essentially indistinguishable, there was something else that caused VHS to stand atop the media format hierarchy and laugh at poor Betamax. In this case, VHS had better marketing, and the inventors of VHS were a little bit sneaky. 

Here’s how it went down.

The Betamax format was invented by Sony. If you know anything about Sony, you’ll know that they’re extremely innovative, but they’re also very protective of their inventions. Most of the time, they invent something that’s so cool on its own that people have to have it and they’ll pay anything for it. Think of the Playstation for example. Sometimes, their protectiveness bites them in the derriere. Betamax probably bit them harder than any of their other inventions.

Sony wanted to keep Betamax on a short leash. They wanted to be able to make every Betamax product from start to finish. They wanted to make the tapes, the cameras, the playback devices, and probably even the labels. They wanted full control.

Meanwhile, the inventors of VHS, JVC, decided to do the opposite. They developed the VHS as an open format, which means that any company could make VHS products if they wanted. A bunch of other companies jumped on the bandwagon, making VHS tapes cheaper and more accessible than Betamax. Because economies of scale and overall consumer friendliness, VHS beat out Betamax as a tape format.


In Conclusion

Betamax was arguably a better technology than VHS. It had better picture, was more compact, and even looked cooler. The problem was that Sony tried too hard to keep the technology to itself, and it eventually lost out because its competitor had better marketing. RIP Betamax.


Do you still have Betamax tapes collecting dust in your home? Southtree can help digitize your tapes and keep your memories playing forever.

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