Sony Will Retire Betamax in 2016. Wait, That Hasn't Happened Yet?


Sony president and CEO Kazuo Hirai delivers a keynote address in front of an image of a Sony Betamax at the 2014 International CES conference. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Sony president and CEO Kazuo Hirai delivers a keynote address in front of an image of a Sony Betamax at the 2014 International CES conference. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

When Sony recently announced that it would retire the ill-fated Betamax line of video cassettes in March 2016, the general public response was something along the lines of "What's a Betamax?"

And for those of us who remember the days when movie rental stores where divided into two sections – one for Betamax and the other for VHS — it was a moment of nostalgia and bewilderment. Most of us probably didn't realize that those clunky cassettes were even still being made. As it turns out, while Sony stopped producing Beta recorders in 2002, it's still made a number of cassettes every year since then.

A circa-1978 advertisement for the Sony Betamax video cassette player.
A circa-1978 advertisement for the Sony Betamax video cassette player.
Tom Simpson/Flickr Creative Commons

Betamax's official retirement comes 40 years after the Beta cassette format's introduction, and decades after JVC thumped Sony in the "format wars" to decide how the public would consume video. The tapes are also getting put out to pasture as the DVD and Blu-Ray discs that eventually replaced VHS cassettes fade into oblivion. Still, not everyone is necessarily embracing the news that the Japanese video format will be put out to pasture. There's a small, but dedicated groups of Beta-heads out there who credit the cassettes with changing the way that we watch television and movies.

"The announcement from Sony that they were to cease manufacturing Betamax tapes was greeted with great sadness from Betamax fans around the world," says Alan Barnett, who operates a website dedicated to the video format.

The case for Betamax goes something like this: if it wasn't for that early tape technology, you might not have the luxury of watching flicks and TV shows whenever you please. It was Betamax – not the Video Home System tape format that ultimately became a fixture in living rooms around the globe – that set the legal precedent for the recording of TV and movies for personal use. In a landmark 1984 decision, a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Betamax users could record programs and movies from their home televisions for later use without violating copyright law.

You see, there was a time when you had to be home on a Friday night if you wanted to keep up with the Ewing clan and the rest of the cast of "Dallas." It wasn't long after the high court's decision that home viewers began using VHS recorders to tape their favorite programs and movies. It would be decades before the technology behind TiVo and other digital video recorders came on the scene, but those early days of taping shows on blank cassettes helped chart the legal path.

That's not to mention the fact that some folks just happen to like Betamax tapes. The format was widely believed to offer higher quality videos than VHS, which won the public's general heart only because the cassettes were cheaper and could hold more recording time. More than a decade after Sony stopped selling Betamax player/recorder devices, a community of Betamax enthusiasts still trades cleaning and maintenance advice, buys and sells tapes and even offers heartfelt condolences for a technology that never made it to prime time.

"Just as classic cars or motorbikes are cherished and kept running by those who love them, I see Betamax living on in this way," Barnett says. "You only have to look at the auction sites to see that Betamax machines have value."



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