Sony is finally putting Betamax out of its misery

The long, slow goodbye.
The long, slow goodbye.
Image: Flickr/Marcin Wichary
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Forty years after it was first released, Betamax is finally going to be discontinued. Sony, who developed the technology back in the 1970s, announced today (Nov. 10) that it plans to stop manufacturing the cassette format in March 2016. So stock up now.

Many would have assumed that Betamax was dead already, seeing as it is about 30 years since it lost the format wars to VHS tapes, which themselves haven’t been in wide use in a couple of decades. Sony stopped making Betamax players in 2002, so even the die-hard fans must’ve suspected this day had long been coming.

In the late 1970s, Japanese electronics giants Sony and JVC (how the mighty have fallen) had competing tape formats. As The Guardian points out, Sony had initially convinced the Japanese government that there should be one format standard, and that its Betamax system produced higher-quality images over VHS. But JVC convinced Sharp, Hitachi, and Matsushita (the company behind Panasonic) to get behind VHS.

As a result, the format wars of the 1980s broke out, with Betamax and VHS going head-to-head in markets across the world. Sony, having marched ahead pretty much alone with Betamax, eventually conceded defeat when it launched a VHS player in 1988. Still, Betamax found moderate success—at least enough for Sony to keep producing the technology—in Japanese TV recording studios but then digital recording came along.

Unlike other outdated media format—such as the Polaroid, the vinyl record, or even the cassette tape—Betamax was never granted a hipster revival. It did, however, garner a small, ardent following that continued to use the tape-based recording technology well after the rest of the world have moved onto DVDs.

In 1998, the New York Times interviewed some fans (paywall) of the format, who then still held out hope that Sony would release a new Betamax player in the US. One such fan, Randy Kaempen, told the Times: ”My brother says I pick ‘loser’ technologies,” Kaempen added, ”but I prefer to think that I pick technologically superior technologies, regardless of their popularity.”

It’s unclear if Randy is still out there somewhere, firing up his Betamax recorder every time someone wants to make a home movie, when his friends and family are probably using their phones. But if he is, he has a few months left to hoard all the Betamax tapes he can find.

Image by Marcin Wichary on Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-2.0.