Betamax not better, after all

You know how we are always saying “the best technology doesn’t always win”?
And how someone always cites Beta vs V.H.S., and how Betamax was superior technology?
According to James Surowiecki in this week’s New Yorker that isn’t really the case.
Actually V.H.S. was the better product since it was a better match for what its users wanted to do:
Betamax fans still extoll its superior picture quality, but for most consumers V.H.S. was the better product; Betamax tapes could fit only an hour’s recording time, while V.H.S. could record an entire movie.
The article is actually about the current standards battle between Blu-ray vs HD-DVD.
But it also brings up the eternal question about how technology standards are agreed:
Yet standards themselves are determined in unstandardized ways.
And what can happen to resolve a war. In some cases, of course, multiple standards can successfully co-exist, such as Coke and Pepsi (he says) but in other cases the victory results in a “winner take all” situation such as Microsoft achieved with Word.
(By the way Surowiecki doesn’t predict a winner in the current war, saying both sides are doing things right – instead he implies negotiation will be required such as what happened with the DVD.)
The most encouraging thing about the article, however, it its perspective that even though consumer confidence is potentially the biggest factor (i.e. everyone wants to know they are investing in the likely winner), which results in a lot of vendor posturing, in the end the best solution usually wins.
Betamax was really not better than V.H.S., after all…


3 responses to “Betamax not better, after all

  1. I’m not sure if James Surowiecki has a background in technology. But it is a mistake to confuse a technology with a product. As a technology Betamax was superior to VHS. As a product, VHS was better. Most technological standards battles are decided by the lowest common denominator – the market. The quality of VHS is actually lower than Betamax but the benefits outweigh that. The old US Civil War expression on the outcome of battles sums up how standards are really set: “who ever gets there firstest with the mostest wins.”

  2. Interesting post here about how the battle may end in a draw because of a new player capable of reading both formats:

  3. John,
    This may be splitting hairs but if the market is what decides the standard, and one technology is a better fit for the market requirement than the other, doesn’t that mean that the technology that is the better fit for the market is also therefore the better technology?
    Perhaps in this example Betamax is somehow in theory the superior technology but not in practice?

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