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Rest in peace VHS

Last rites sounded for life-changing video format as retailers yank VCRs from their shelves for good.

In a move that marks the beginning of the end for a hugely successful chapter in technology history, Britain's biggest high street electronics retailer Dixons has announced that it's taking VCRs off its shelves for good.

"We're saying goodbye to one of the most important products in the history of consumer technology," Dixons marketing director John Mewett said. "We are now entering the digital age and the new DVD technology available represents a step-change in picture quality and convenience."

"We're saying goodbye to one of the most important products in the history of consumer technology."
--John Mewett, Dixons marketing director

All over the world, the revolutionary VHS (video home system)--which let people record and watch television programs when they wanted rather than at the whim of broadcasters--is in headlong retreat as the DVD (digital versatile disc) takes over.

Dixons, which had sold VCRs for 26 years, is not alone. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, offers only a handful of stand-alone VHS recorders on its Web site.

"VHS was pretty revolutionary," VHS player collector Andy Hain told Reuters on Monday. "The fact that people take them for granted so much today shows just how important they were."

For more than 25 years, VHS dominated the world home entertainment market after seeing off a challenge from Sony's Betamax in the early 1980s.

By the 1990s, a VHS recorder was a common feature in most homes as prices fell and technology improved--although the art of actually programming a recorder remained a mystery to many.

To add insult to injury, police grudgingly admit that in Britain at least, home burglars don't even bother to take VHS players because new ones now cost so little that no one wants a second-hand model.

When DVDs first came along in the mid-1990s, sales were initially slow, but now sales of DVD players outstrip those of VHS players by a factor of 40 to one globally. Leading high street film rental company Blockbuster reports that over 80 percent of its rentals are DVDs.

Far from undermining the film industry, DVD sales can make the difference between loss and profit.

Internationally, the market for DVDs--currently estimated at some $15 billion a year--is expanding exponentially. The industry expects that some 450 million households will have a DVD player by 2008.

But the explosion of DVD technology has brought a surge in piracy--discs may offer better-quality viewing, but they're far more quickly copied than tapes (and they're easier to carry).

The demise of VHS vindicates the foresight of Hain, who has been collecting VHS players for the past 11 years and has set up his own museum of video recorders.

He admits on his Web site though, that the museum is rather small. "This is partly because VHS decks are a little dull," he reflects.

Dan Ilett of ZDNet UK contributed to this report.

Story Copyright  © 2004 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.