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VCR (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

One of the most common questions I get is why did Betamax fail when it was so much better than its competitors. Only if you're over forty does the word "betamax" even ring a bell. It refers to one of the earliest VCRs.

Sony came up with the Betamax, and JVC invented the VHS VCR, which became the standard we use today. Many consumers thought the picture quality of the Betamax superior to that of the VHS machine, so the Betamax got dubbed the "better" machine. Yet to my engineers eye, the better engineered machine was the VHS. Here's the story.

In the 1960s JVC and Sony each tried to make home video recorders. When they failed both companies returned to their drawing boards. JVC reinvented their VCR by asking themselves: What went wrong with the first home recorder? To answer this they asked what assemblers, retailers, repairmen, customers - everyone - wanted in a VCR. They wrote a plan they called "The Matrix" that listed the needs of everyone involved with the making, sale or use of a VCR. This guided the design of every aspect. For example, from this "matrix" they determined that the VCR must have a minimum recording time of two hours because consumers wanted to watch feature length films.

From 1971 to 1974 the engineers worked quietly to meet the goals of their matrix, then the JVC Chairman asked to see their work. They explained to him the nuisances of their video recorder and then popped in a tape. After the demonstration the Chairman smiled, leaned over, pressed his cheek against the recorder and said "It's marvelous. You have made something very nice."

Next they had to go up against Sony's home video system. Sony invited the JVC engineers see their new Betamax VCR in hopes that they'd all agree on a standard. They'd schedule the Betamax to hit the domestic market six months ahead of JVC's machine

Worried that the Betamax would take over the market, the JVC engineers carefully studied the competitor's VCR. They noted right away how well their matrix had served them. The Betamax tape was only one hour long! And the Betamax weighed some 30% more and it was more difficult to manufacture - the cost of manufacturing scales directly with weight. Their VCR might not have the picture quality of a Betamax, but it did fit the bigger picture: They knew it could meet the needs of manufacturers and consumers.

Soon after its release VHS sales caught up to Sony's Betamax, eventually surpassing it until now VHS is the worldwide standard. All because JVC engineers sat and thought and thought before they built a thing. So while the Betamax had a sharper picture, that's only a small part of the story. The rest of the story includes everyone who uses a VCR and that's where VHS beat Betmax.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises