Betamax was not better than VHS

Betamax was not better than VHS

There is a frequently-told story in the tech and marketing industries about the “format war” between Betamax (Sony’s video recorder technology, based on the systems used for broadcast), and the alternative from Matsushita/JVC, Video Home System (VHS). This happened back in the late 1970s, but it has passed into lore and so still gets brought up in lots of conversations and conference presentations.

The story goes that VHS won the format war for video recorders in spite of Betamax being technologically superior. This is true *only* for a narrow and marginal set of performance claims that were largely irrelevant to consumers.

In the US, early Betamax units could only record one hour of video. A film is around two hours, one of their games of ‘football’, more like four hours. The supposed quality advantage over VHS? 250 lines of resolution versus 240, plus a few other metrics 90% of consumers would never understand. All available in a better-built unit, but at a much higher price.

This is not what technologically superiority looks like to me. It’s a total failure to understand the customer.

VHS, by contrast, could record two hours from day one, and this was very quickly extended to four hours by RCA, whose people understood what the American customer wanted. By the time the format war came to Europe, the volumes of VHS recorders being produced for the US market meant the price could be lowered further.

VHS didn’t win because of the porn industry (one story) or because of better marketing campaigns (the most common story). These factors may have contributed to its ultimate success. But mostly it won because it was the technologically superior product in the ways that actually mattered to the customer.

This post forms part of my Future of Technology series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Technology page.

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Tom Cheesewright