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Tech Talk Radio Show 29 of 2009
Transmission date: July 20, 2009

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Ep 29: NBN: Fact or Fiction, 40 years: Man on the moon, NASA looses 2" tapes, Microsoft to open next to Apple, PS3 to stream music videos, IE8 and Avid crash, Cupcake and Optus...

July 20, 2009

During the course of the past week, I came across and article on Gizmodo.com.au titled “The Dirty Backstabbing Mess Called Betamax Vs VHS”. This article brought back memories of a format war, which at the time, were the likes we’d never seen before. Two rival formats of similar technology, vying for dominance in the then very juvenile home video market.

For those of you not old enough to remember, these were two domestic 1/2” video tape formats which went head to head back in the early 80’s, but as history now tells, there was only room in the market for one and we all know who the winner was. Betamax was a home videocassette tape recording format developed by Sony, released on May 10, 1975. Betamax had no guard band and used azimuth recording to reduce crosstalk.


According to Sony's own history webpage, the name came from a double meaning: beta being the Japanese word used to describe the way signals were recorded onto the tape, and from the fact that when the tape ran through the transport, it looked like the Greek letter beta (β). The suffix -max came from "maximum", to suggest greatness.

So what was wrong with Sony’s Betamax? Technically, nothing. In fact, those in the know knew that Betamax had the edge over VHS. The VHS format was a result of two companies Matsushita—who we now call Panasonic—and its independent subsidiary JVC.

To quote Gizmodo “ These guys (JVC and Matsushita) were among the biggest manufacturers in the world, dwarfing Sony many times over. Matsushita, known for efficiency, not innovation, tended to focus on big boring appliances—TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners—with a smaller team, branded Technics, devoted to dominating the hi-fi realm. JVC was all about TVs and audio gear, and had decent video know-how.”

So was it sheer volume, brand dominance and product saturation in a global market place that caused the demise of Betamax? Or was it the marketing battle that would make consumers choose one over the other. My guess is that it was a bit of both. It’s worth noting that the Beta format continues to this day in the professional video market. Sony have patents which stitch up the IP of the format, which means only Sony can make Beta tapes for SD and HD formats such as Digital Betacam and HDcam. The housing remains the same, but what’s contained within has certainly change through the years.

In modern times, we’re still witnessing format wars. The most recent was that between Bluray and HD DVD, and we all know the outcome of that. Fortunately this was not as prolonged battle as was VHS and DVD. The collateral damage of the Beta VHS war was millions of Betamax owners globally. I recall Betamax held just as much shelf space as VHS did in our local video library at its peak. When the consortium lead by Toshiba threw in the HD DVD towel, the damage was minimal, due to the fact that the emerging technology was just so new.

In today’s professional video production environment, Sony have won the war they have decks and formats which are truly industry standard. They have a massive share of the market place. Panasonic are there, and try as they might, they cannot reclaim that share.

So at the end of the day, when Sony’s Beta format is alive and well, living in TV studios and Production houses globally, who do you think won the war?

Also on the show this week:

  • We’ll check out Firefox’s latest incarnation,
  • We get the latest on the NBN Rollout or lack of it,
  • A NASA hacker was just searching for UFOs
  • Microsoft plans to open shop right next door toApple and
  • beware the phony bid on eBay.