Sony president and CEO Kazuo Hirai with a Betamax player Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Sony president and CEO Kazuo Hirai speaks at the Consumer Electronics Show with ... a Betamax player behind him. The company introduced the technology in 1975, stopped manufacturing players in 2002 and will finally halt tape production early next year.

Sony to End Betamax Tape Production in 2016 (Wait, What?)

Betamax lost the tape wars to VHS decades ago, then both were replaced by DVDs, Blurays and streaming video. Except nobody told Sony, which still makes the 1970s tech, and will until the last tapes roll out in March.

TOKYO — Sony announced this week that the company will stop making Betamax video tapes, ending the storied four-decade history of the product that had been ousted years ago by the more popular VHS format.

Wait. Wait, for just a second or two. Read that last sentence again.

Sony announced this week that the company will stop making Betamax video tapes.

Sony introduced that technology in 1975, then lost the magnetic tape wars to the rival VHS format in the late 1980s, not long after peaking in 1984 when it shipped a reported 50 million tapes. The company churned out the last Betamax players in 2002, which itself seems sort of incredible. And still they kept making the tapes for more than another decade.

All right. Now that we’ve established that Sony still manufactures Betamax tapes in 2015 — and will in 2016, too, for at least a few months — let’s continue with the rest of the story.

“Sony will stop the shipment of Betamax video cassettes and micro MV cassettes in March 2016,” the company said in a Japanese-language statement. “With this step, all of our firm’s shipment will end for recording media using the Betamax format and the micro MV cassette format.”

Betamax was initially supported by Toshiba and other electronics makers, and is most remembered as the loser of the tense corporate battle in the 1970s and 1980s over setting the de facto household video standard, which was won heartily by the VHS format that was developed by another Japanese electronics maker that now is a part of JVC Kenwood.

VHS gave way to digital formats, first DVDs, then Blurays, all of which have been largely replaced by online streaming technology. 

Sony said it has sold more than 18 million Betamax device units worldwide since its launch, with all these recent tape shipments for the diehards, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing with them in the age of DVR and Netflix.

Sony added it could stop shipping Betamax tapes earlier than the scheduled March end, “depending on the demand conditions.” That seems like a fitting coda to a technology that has been surpassed and largely (and perhaps even unfortunately) forgotten.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2015

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