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." As well as Sony and Sanyo, Betamax video recorders were also sold by Toshiba, Pioneer, Aiwa and NEC. Sony introduced the Betamax home video system in 1975. The format failed to gain significant market share and was nearly completely replaced by VHS.


Betamax format

The Betamax cassette is smaller than the VHS cassette, and the format produces a sharper picture, although the difference was not always obvious to the home consumer, as both technologies progressed. Many, but certainly not all, Betamax machines remained laced up during fast-forward and rewind operations, which allowed for quick jumps from play to winding and a "peep search" feature which became standard on later tape formats. The downside was the risk of some extra head wear. VHS machines at the time would fully unlace during winding functions, though later VHS models could remain partly or fully laced in order to replicate these features. 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 resulted in marginally poorer audio quality, until Beta HiFi models came along. The lower linear tape speed is the reason Betamax video tapes are significantly smaller than VHS tapes, as they have less tape in them for a given running time. In the USA, early models had short running times, but by the time of introduction into Europe, Betamax and VHS running times were very similar.

Struggle and failure in the home market

In domestic use, Betamax lost to VHS despite Sony's great marketing and licensing effort. In his autobiography, Sony's founder, Akio Morita, attributed that loss to Sony's difficulties in licensing the format to sufficient other companies, thus allowing the technically similar 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, caused the demise of betamax. 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 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 MII, collapsed because the Betacam format had become the de-facto standard, mirroring the Betamax/VHS situation in the domestic video arena. Besides using the same videocassettes, Betamax and Betacam are different in an important aspect: Betacam uses a component-video recording system versus VHS/Beta's colour-under video recording. Betacam Linear audio tracks are recorded on the same part of the tape as Betamax, but otherwise the formats are utterly incompatible.

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.


  1. The dirty secret that drives new technology: it's porn (,6903,661094,00.html), John Arlidge, The Observer (, 2002/03/03, retrieved 2005/01/10 from,6903,661094,00.html

As well, the popular television series The Simpsons has commonly shown the residents of Springfield only using Betamax versus VHS. This is meant to poke fun at the fact that Betamax lost to VHS. In more recent episodes the Simpsons have been shown using the Laserdisc format instead of the popular DVD format for video. This is done for the same reason that Betamax was once used in the fictional town.

See also

External links

de:Betamax ja:ベータマックス pt:Betamax fi:Betamax sv:Betamax


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