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November 2015 Retro Gaming Article

November 11, 2015 Retro Gaming Blog Post:

Why Sony's termination announcement of Betamax cassette sales is important to media format choices

If you don't learn from your mistakes... you are doomed to repeat them. Yep - I liked vinyl albums, Betamax, LaserDisc, and currently I'm not fond of today's digital-access model being forced on nearly all forms of media!

Betamax logo For those of you who jumped on the VHS bandwagon in the 80's - you suck! OK, perhaps that's a bit harsh, but Beta was the superior format. The Betamax was an amazing machine and reached iconic status in the first video format war.

Just because the local Mom & Pop rental shop catered to the advances of VHS (especially in their immensely popular "porn" area) was no reason to adopt a low-quality format. On a side note, the long delay in CED VideoDisc release caused the loss to laserDisc and VCRs by their mere existence - CED was old-tech upon it's release.

When it came to VCRs you didn't need a side-by-side comparison to see the difference! VHS was abysmal, from the display quality to the awful recording lengths offered on their cassettes. Beta was better!

For me, the most surprising facet of Betamax is the timeline. The Betamax came on the market in the mid 1970s and Sony still manufactures Beta cassettes! However, stories began swirling around the Net about Sony's announcement to end the manufacturing of Beta cassettes in March 2016. How many people knew you could still buy Beta tapes? Not me.

Format Wars

Beta -vs- VHS was one of the first media wars to have a dramatic impact on consumer choices. In that pre-Internet era, information wasn't readily available about the 2 formats or which one was best. Mom & Pop video shops ruled the movie rental world before the larger chains came on the scene. VHS was the dominant format when it came to a friday night trip to the video store. Every shop had a wide selection of VHS movies and a small area with Beta movies.

Sony Betamax cassette Ultimately, the selection of pre-recorded movies won that format war. If you wanted a diverse selection of titles, you needed to have VHS. Consumers seemed much less interested in the image quality. I have never met anyone who wouldn't admit that the Betamax delivered far better image quality.

The same thing happened when DVD began to challenge LaserDisc. LaserDisc delivered slightly better picture quality, but were not without their drawbacks. LD was not a recordable medium. You couldn't buy blank discs and record movies and TV shows the way a VCR could. Additionally, their lower compression rate necessitated having content on both sides of the disc - you had to flip them over to continue watching. We simply considered that an intermission. ;)

Consumers Don't Always Win

I've often thought that DVD was an effort to deliver video in the same footprint that CDs delivered audio. An exercise in conformity rather than improved quality. Compact Disc was a successful format, but not only because of it's form factor. CDs are one of the few formats I feel really benefited consumers. CDs delivered much better audio quality than previous formats and offered the ability to record. The popular audio format transcended it's own "players" to be integrated into computers, which expanded their utility greatly.

In the cloud or on your shelf... Technology decisions must be right for YOU!
Not all successive formats delivered superior quality. Sony's decision to end Beta Tape production serves as an excellent reminder about the duration of great technology. Living in an information age affords us better access to information, but we now have to be careful about who we believe when evaluating the products we endorse with our wallets.

As we enter further influences of our digital age, be careful when you're told it's OK to purchase music, movies, or video games via download. Upon buying such digital merchandise, what do you really own? An item stored in the "cloud" is very different than the same item stored on your living room shelf.

I feel we are being trained to accept an ownership model where we don't own anything tangible that we can hold in our own hands. Being able to watch a movie or listen to a song on my phone isn't ownership when I look at my DVD and CD collection.

People can make their own choices about stocking up on Betamax cassettes before they disappear, but regardless of the media format be certain your decisions are based on what's best for YOU! As we move forward with media formats and digital formats without physical counterparts, it's important to ensure that consumers are getting the best possible product. Manufacturers only want to deliver the cheapest product they can get away with. Technology is becoming more about economics than quality and real improvements. Buyer beware. VHS won the format war by exploiting market trends, not by delivering the best possible product - Sony's Betamax delivered the quality.

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