Like a grieving widow who finally parts with her late husband's golf clubs, Sony Corp. has given up on Betamax.
The Japanese electronics giant announced Tuesday that it would stop making the last two models of the Betamax videocassette recorder by year's end. The company made fewer than 3,000 of the VCRs last year and sold them only in Japan.
Although the Betamax format was technically superior, it was quickly overrun by the rival VHS format, which captured more than 75% of the consumer market by the early 1980s. The Betamax brand name has since come to symbolize the limited power of good engineering in consumer electronics--the best technology doesn't always win.
The announcement was merely a formality for consumers in the United States. Betamax VCRs disappeared from U.S. store shelves at least a decade ago, as did most Betamax tapes.
Still, an underground community of "Betaphiles" lives on, buying and refurbishing used machines, scrounging around for parts and ordering tapes of movies made before George Clooney's first hit.
Joe Korpsak is one of a handful of merchants devoted to sustaining the Betamax community. A Betaphile himself, Korpsak started Absolute Beta Products and VCRs in Remington, Va., 10 years ago after he landed a cache of 2,000 Betamax movie tapes at an auction.
Now Korpsak sells reconditioned units, supplies and prerecorded tapes to about 1,000 customers a year. He also repairs 200 to 300 machines a year for consumers, many of whom are referred to him by Sony's service centers.
"They keep telling their customers they don't have the parts," Korpsak said.
Why do Betaphiles cling to a format that most consumers abandoned long ago?
Some have large libraries of tapes that they don't want or can't afford to convert to VHS or disc, including home movies.
Others swear by the picture and sound quality, which they say is far better than VHS. Betamax machines crammed more information onto videotape than the initial VHS models, enabling them to record more detailed pictures.
Advances in VHS technology, however, have narrowed or even closed that gap in quality, experts say. And the arrival of DVD, with even better picture quality, has "basically put Betamax to rest or out to pasture," said David J. Migdal, a spokesman for Sony Electronics.
The VHS format also had one critical advantage: VHS cassettes were larger and the tape moved more slowly across the recording heads, enabling much longer recordings on a single videotape. And although its inventor, JVC, didn't bring VHS to the market until a year after Betamax debuted in 1975, it lined up more allies and distributors than Sony did.
Betamax sales hit their peak in 1984, when 2.3 million recorders were sold, the Associated Press reported. But its rivals already were dominating the market, and by 1988 Sony effectively conceded defeat and began selling VHS recorders.
It's not surprising that Sony stuck with the technology long after it was abandoned by every other major consumer electronics company, including Toshiba Corp., Sanyo Electric Co. and Zenith Electronics Corp. The company has a history of sticking with the formats it invents, such as MiniDisc and MemoryStick, even as competitors gravitate to other standards.
The recorders' main legacy may be the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the 1984 Sony Betamax case. The court rejected Hollywood studios' attempt to block Betamax sales on piracy grounds, saying consumers had the right to record TV shows for later viewing.
About 18 million Betamax machines have been sold worldwide, and Korpsak estimates that 100,000 consumers in the United States still use them. For the last several years, the only new Betamax machines available have been for high-end consumers--the last two models sell in Japan for about $750 and $2,050, Migdal said.
Used machines can be found online for $10 or less, although a reconditioned, working unit from Surplus Traders in Alburg, Vt., will cost $1,000 or more, said store owner Marvin Birnbom. "I'm surprised myself at the interest in it, but not necessarily the sales," Birnbom said, explaining that most callers lose their ardor when they hear the price.
The last Hollywood studio that routinely put out movies on Betamax tapes, Korpsak said, was Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista, which abandoned the format in the mid-1990s. After that, Paramount would put a movie out on Betamax for orders of 20 or more, Korpsak said, but "they stopped that a couple of years ago."
Despite the lack of fresh supplies, Absolute Beta still has a library of tens of thousands of Betamax tapes, Korpsak said. Much of his stock is older films that are no longer available in any format, he said, adding, "I suspect at some time we'll become [an archive] like the Library of Congress."