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HOME TECH ANALYSIS : Sony's Decision a Blow to Owners of Beta VCRs

January 13, 1988|TERRY ATKINSON

How many consumers will be affected by Sony's decision on Monday to begin selling VHS-type videocassette recorders? The answer lies in another question: How many own Beta-format VCRs? Those VCRs, you'll remember, are the ones that Sony developed and defended up until its announcement.

Beta owners have already seen prerecorded tapes for their machines dwindle. Many have given up trying to rent movies in Beta, and have added a VHS deck for that purpose--keeping the Beta model for taping off television. (Beta quality--especially that of SuperBeta--is slightly better than VHS, at least until VHS with HQ and Super VHS came along.)

Even though many experts predicted the eventual death of Beta, Sony has stood fast by its baby, even developing an "Extended Definition" Beta format (ED Beta) due for introduction into the U.S. market later this year. However, Beta owners who were considering a switch to ED Beta will have to think twice about the entire Beta approach. As one industry analyst has been quoted as saying, "I think you'd have to be crazy to buy a Beta machine at this point . . . ."

Sony, no doubt, will say it will continue to offer a full line of Beta hardware and software--and indeed the company, which has not only size but a strong reputation in the electronics business, may do so through the '90s. However, many consumers are going to remember how RCA--another huge, respected firm--left videodisc buyers holding the bag with its CED format after many promises.

Instead of moving up to ED Beta this year, should Beta owners opt for the equivalent, improved-VHS system, Super VHS, which is already available? It's hard to see why that wouldn't be the wise course.

But let's face it--most video watchers won't give a darn about Sony's announcement. Why? Because most of them have VHS, which currently accounts for more than 90% of VCR sales.

For these people, the Sony decision simply means that one more brand name will join those on the wide shelves of VHS machines. Some consumers will be interested in seeing whether Sony will put the same quality construction into its VHS machines that it's known for in Beta VCRs, Trinitron TVs, etc. But that's about it.

No, the only one hurt here is that abused minority--Beta owners. Sony has decided to cut its losses in the video field; many of the people who've stuck with the company's favored format are going to decide it's time for them to do the same.

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