The year is 1975 and new technology is emerging in Japan that will allow consumers the ability to record a TV show and watch at their convenience, the home VCR. No more missing M*A*S*H because you had another commitment. Sony’s Betamax revolutionized the video market and introduced a concept of watching shows, not when they were broadcast, but later in time. During this case study, we will examine the many design failures of Betamax and how VHS tapes won the VHS/Betamax Wars.
Sony wasn’t the only company working on VCR technology. Their biggest competitor was JVC who introduced a VHS tape VCR shortly after Sony’s Betamax tapes were introduced. This technology was introduced to the U.S. in late 1977 and would soon evolve into the VHS/Betamax Wars.
When Betamax tapes were first introduced they touted superior picture quality and sound, but the drawback was they could only record one hour on each cassette tape. VHS tapes may not have had the picture and sound quality of Betamax tapes, but when first introduced, they could record up to two hours of play time, enough for most movies. This was a major drawback with Betamax tapes. Since they could only record one hour of TV, consumers were unable to record long length movies or programs. Sony’s engineers wanted to keep the size of the tape down and continue with the superior picture quality, assuming consumers would prefer theses aspects.
In 1977, JVC cornered the market and introduced a feature that would allow consumers to sacrifice picture quality, but record up to 4 hours of content on one VHS tape (LP modes). Sony reacted and soon came out with a feature on its new Betamax VCR’s called BII that would allow for the same slow speed recording that would extend recording time.
Tape length wasn’t the only issue that Sony was having. Unfortunately, Sony always seemed to be one step behind in manufacturing convenience features that consumers wanted. For instance, RCA came out with remote pause control and a built-in timer. Sony finally added this to its machines 2 years later.
Theory Inflected Analysis of the Case at Hand
Sony manufactured a superior VCR product, Betamax, however, the design engineers forgot to take into consideration human-centered design (HCD). Don Norman’s definition of HCD is “an approach that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of behaving” (p. 8). Betamax consumers that stayed with this product, were loyal due to the superior video quality that Sony offered. However, as Norman states, “people have to actually purchase it. It doesn’t matter how good a product is if, in the end, nobody uses it” (p. 35). This is the biggest downfall of Betamax. Yes, they had a superior product over VHS, however, because design engineers were not willing to sacrifice qualify for quantity, they failed.
Sony also released different versions of Betamax in various countries, with Japan being their first and most sought after market. For instance, Sony released audio dub to most of its VCR’s in Japan and several other countries, but it took several years to appear on VCR’s sold in the U.S., why? Per popular opinion, “one more knob might be too much for our simple American minds to manage” (Wielage & Woodcock). If this feature worked well in other markets, why not introduce it to the U.S.? Human-centered design may have helped Sony win over the market if they considered what U.S. consumers were looking for.
Unfortunately, Betamax was continuously late in implementing design features, being reactive instead of capitalizing first on new features. Convenience-added features that enabled consumers to do more with their VCR.
Raskin (2000) discusses the importance of having a humane interface “An interface is humane if it is responsive to human needs and considerate of human frailties. If you want to create a humane interface, you must have an understanding of the relevant information on how both humans and machines operate. In addition, you must cultivate in yourself a sensitivity to the difficulties that people experience.” (p. 6-7)
Sony seemed focused on only two attributes, quality picture, and sound. While these seem to be extremely important qualities to have in a VCR product, in the end, consumers were willing to sacrifice these for convenience features. Features that Betamax was slow to implement. Why was Sony so slow to realize the “difficulties” that the consumers had with their product?
Student Analysis of the Outcome.
There may have been several reasons for the delay in implementation of new convenience features. As Norman points out, “the reasons for the deficiencies in human-machine interaction are numerous. Some come from limitations of today’s technology…from self-imposed restrictions by the designers, often to hold down cost” (p. 6). According to Wielage and Woodcock (2000), Sony was alone in devoting resources to new developments with Betamax, whereas VHS had multiple resources with companies such as JVC, Hitachi, and Mitsubishi.
According to Wielage and Woodcock (1988), Betamax was doomed before it even began. RCA requesting longer play time from Betamax tapes but Sony refused, losing support from the number-one TV manufacturer in the U.S. They also lost support from Hitachi because Sony refused to allow them licensing rights to manufacture Betamax decks. While VHS had the upper hand, having more recognizable brand names in the U.S. This meant consumers could easily find and purchase VHS decks.
Ultimately, with Sony always reacting, they were unable to ever gain a lead against VHS and Betamax was virtually forgotten.
“The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions in each device also complicates life by making the device harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology and the challenge for the designer.” (Norman p. 34)
The above quote from Norman relates to Sony in that if they introduced too many functions, consumers may be reluctant to purchase their product. Sony wanted a sleek and easy to use recording device. As Norman comments on, consumers want a product that is usable and understandable, attractive and affordable, all while being reliable. “Products also need to be distinguishable from competing products and superior in critical dimensions” (Norman p. 35). Sony had some of the above aspects but were ultimately unreliable in implementing and incorporating human-centered design. Betamax had some of the features, but unfortunately, they didn’t capture all of them, ultimately failing to win over the popular consumer vote.
Hindsight is always 20/20. If Sony could have forecasted their downfalls, we may still have Betamax tapes lying around. Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball. What we can learn from Sony is to listen to consumer demand and design. If Sony was so concerned about picture quality and sound, a better option would have been to introduce varying levels of Betamax tape decks. Sony could have marketed a high-quality play version, with limited playback for a higher price and then a lower end version with less picture quality at a lower price. This way, consumers could choose the features that mattered to them.
Norman, D. A. (2013). The design of everyday things: Revised and expanded edition. Basic books.
Raskin, J. (2000). The humane interface: new directions for designing interactive systems. Addison-Wesley Professional.
Schofield, Jack (2003, January 24). Why VHS was better than Betamax. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2003/jan/25/comment.comment
Wielage, M., & Woodcock, R. (1988). The rise and fall of BETA. Videofax., (5).