The videotape format war was a period of intense competition or "format war" of incompatible models of video cassette recorders (VCR) in the late 1970s and the 1980s. It has gone down in marketing history as a classic example of technological rivalry.
Home VCRs first became available in the early 1970s — such as a Philips VCR model, released in 1972. The first system to be successful with consumers was Sony's Betamax in 1975. This was quickly followed by the competing VHS (Video Home System) format from JVC, and later by Video 2000 from Philips. Subsequently, the Betamax-VHS format war began in earnest. Other competitors, such as Sanyo's V-Cord and Quasar's "Great Time Machine" quickly disappeared.
Sony had demonstrated a prototype videotape recording system they called "Beta" to the other electronics manufacturers in 1974, and expected that they would back a single format for the good of all. But JVC in particular decided to go with its own format (despite Sony's appeal to the Japanese Ministry of Trade and Industry) and the classic format war began.
Manufacturers also introduced other systems such as needle-based, record-style discs (RCA's Capacitance Electronic Disc, JVC's Video High Density disc) and Philips' LaserDisc. None of these disc formats gained much ground as none were capable of home recording; however, they did hold small niche markets. CED's inexpensive record-style format made it attractive to low-income families during the 1980s, and LaserDisc's 5 megahertz/420 line resolution made it popular with discerning videophiles until circa 1997 (when DVD-Video became the new standard for high-quality).
RCA had initially planned a home video format around 1974, to be called "SelectaVision MagTape," but canceled it after hearing rumors about Sony's Betamax format, and was considering Sony as an OEM for an RCA-branded VCR. RCA had discussions with Sony, but RCA felt the recording time was too short, insisting that they needed at least a 4-hour recording time (reportedly because that was the length of an average televised U.S. football game). Sony engineers knew that the technology available to manufacture video heads wasn't up to the task yet, but halving the tape speed and track width was a possibility. Unfortunately, the picture quality would be degraded severely, and at that time Sony engineers felt the compromise was not worthwhile.
Soon after, RCA met with execs with the Victor Corporation of Japan (JVC), who had created their own video format christened "VHS" (which stood for "Video Home System). But JVC also refused to compromise the picture quality of their format by allowing a 4-hour mode. Ironically, their parent corporation, Matsushita, later met with RCA, and agreed to manufacture a 4-hour-capable VHS machine for RCA, much to JVC's chagrin.
RCA would go on to market "4 hours, $999", forcing a price war and also a "tape length" war. Betamax eventually achieved 5 hours at Beta-III speed on an ultra-thin L-830 cassette, and VHS eventually squeezed 10.6 hours with SLP/EP speed on a T-210 cassette. Slower tape speeds meant a degradation in picture quality, but the consumer didn't seem to mind. From the consumer perspective, buying a single 10-hour VHS tape was cheaper than buying two 5-hour Betamax tapes.
When Betamax was introduced in Japan and the United States in 1975, its Beta-I speed offered a slightly higher horizontal resolution (250 lines vs. 240 lines horizontal NTSC), lower video noise, and less luma/chroma crosstalk than VHS, and was later marketed as providing pictures superior to VHS's playback. However, the introduction of B-II speed (2-hour mode), to compete with VHS's 2-hour Standard Play mode, reduced Betamax's horizontal resolution to 240 lines. The extension of VHS to VHS HQ increased the apparent resolution, so that overall, a Betamax/VHS user could expect virtually identical luma resolution (230-250 lines) and chroma resolution (~30 lines), wherein the actual picture performance depended on other factors, including the condition and quality of the videotape, and the specific video recorder machine model. For most consumers, the difference as seen on the average television, was negligible.
Another improvement would be SuperBeta (sometimes called High Band Beta) in 1985. SuperBeta allowed for a gain of 20% to 290 lines in horizontal resolution, and some mechanical changes to reduce video noise, but Betamax's American and European share had already dropped to less than 10% of the market at this point.
For PAL versions time was less of an issue. Betamax's longest tape (L-830) could record for 3 hours and 35 minutes, compared to VHS's 4 hours. For the European markets the issue was one of cost, since VHS had already gained dominance in the United States (70% of the market), and the large economy of scale allowed VHS units to be sold at a far lower cost than the rarer Betamax units. (See market share below.)
In the mid-to-late 80s, both formats were extended to Super Betamax and Super VHS. Super Betamax offered a slight improvement from 250 to 290 lines horizontally, which could make near-identical copies of broadcast or cable television. Super VHS offered up to 420 lines horizontal (in modern digital terms, 560 pixels edge-to-edge) that surpassed broadcast-quality and matched the quality of laserdiscs. However, the "super" standards remained expensive niche products for a small minority of videophiles and camcorder hobbyists.
Within continental Europe there were three choices by 1980, with the arrival of the Video 2000 format from Philips and Grundig, which replaced Philips' outdated "VCR" format. Although it featured many capabilities formerly only available on expensive broadcast video recorders, V2000 had too long a development cycle and arrived late to the market. Apart from this, to keep costs down many of its unique features, such as Dynamic Track Following, were only implemented on the most expensive models, meaning mainstream models suffered from indifferent video quality. Also, many features that came standard on VHS and Betamax machines (such as direct AV in and out connectors), were only available as expensive "optional extras" on V2000. The machines were also found to be less reliable than their VHS and Beta counterparts and for all these reasons the format never gained substantial market share. V2000 was cancelled in 1985, the first casualty of the format war.
The outcome was decided by other more-important factors such as longer home-recording time (up to 10.6 hours on a T-210). Although Betamax initially owned 100% of the market in 1975, the perceived value of longer recording times eventually tipped the balance in favor of VHS. By 1981, U.S. Beta sales had sunk to only 25% of all sales. As movie and video studios turned away from Beta, the combination of lower market share and a lack of available titles strengthened VHS's hand. In the UK, Beta held a 25% market share, but by 1986 it was down to 7.5% and continued to decline further. In Japan, Betamax had more success and eventually evolved into Enhanced Definition Betamax with 500+ lines resolution (DVD quality), but eventually both Betamax and VHS were supplanted by laser-based technology. The last Sony Betamax was produced in 2002. Although VHS is still available in VHS/DVD combination units, the last dedicated JVC VHS unit was produced in 2007.
When it became clear that Beta had lost the video format war, controversy switched from which technology was better to why VHS had triumphed so completely. The video format war is now a highly scrutinized event in business and marketing history, leading to a plethora of market investigations into why Betamax failed. As mentioned above, Sony was first to release their format, but was followed only a year later by JVC and their affiliates.
Sony seemed to have misjudged the home video market. They believed that the 1-hour length of their current Umatic format would be sufficient for Betamax too. However Umatic was primarily a professional standard, with constant surveillance by television technicians, and which did not need more than one hour length per tape. For home usage one hour would not be enough to record an evening of primetime programming, or Monday Night Football. Therefore consumers naturally flocked to the 4-hour "Long Play" VCRs offered by RCA and Matsushita in 1976.
What Sony didn't take into account was what the consumers wanted. Sony believed that having better quality recordings was the key to success, whereas it soon became clear that consumer desire was focused more intently on recording time and compatibility for easy transfer of information. In addition Sony, being the first producer to offer their technology, also thought it would establish Betamax as the leading format. This kind of lock-in and path dependence failed for Sony, but succeeded brilliantly for JVC . For nearly thirty years JVC dominated the home market with their VHS, Super VHS, and VHS-Compact formats and collected billions in royalty payments.
Further driving the VHS format was its inherent 2 hour playback time (SP speed) - a much better fit for Hollywood movies than Betamax's 1-hour limitation. This event spawned the huge video rental business that flourished in the 1980 and 90's. Being able to watch Hollywood rental movies was a major reason for North American consumers to purchase a VCR. To their credit, executives at JVC foresaw this and thus the VHS format's Standard Play time of 120 minutes was VHS's design goal right from the beginning. On the other hand virtually all commercially pre-recorded Beta titles were done in Beta II (half) speed in order to achieve a 2 hour playback time, albeit with some loss of picture quality.
The video recording market was an unknown when VCRs first came on the market; as such, Sony and JVC were both developing technologies that were unproven. As a result of the desire to get into the marketplace faster, the firms both spent less time on research and development, and tried to save money by picking a version of the technology they thought would do best without really exploring all the options. This is why there was more than one format on the market and why they continued to reinvent them with longer playing times and better quality.
In 1988 Sony began to market their own VHS machines, and despite claims that they were still backing Beta, it was clear that the format was dead — at least in Europe and the U.S. In parts of South America and in Japan Beta continued to be popular, and was still in production up to the end of 2002. The rise of DVD finally took away the niche market that Betamax had survived in during the '90s, giving the home format a total lifespan of 27 years.
Today, the only remaining aspect of the Betamax system is the slang term 'betamaxed', used to describe something that had a brief shelf life and was quickly replaced by the competition. Despite the failure of Betamax, its technological successor, the Betacam tape would become an industry standard for video recording, production and presentation, and continues to be used to this day, only now beginning to be supplanted by direct hard drive storage of video.
For more information on this topic, see the format war article.