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Betamax to Blu-ray: Sony format winners, losers

Sony's had more than of its share of winners, the CD for example--and losers--think Betamax.

Sony got it right with the CD. Steve Guttenberg

Betamax was one of Sony's biggest blunders.

The videocassette format was introduced in 1975, and initially sold well. But when JVC's VHS tape cartridge was introduced in 1978, Betamax quickly lost its lead. The media loved Beta for its superior picture quality, but Standard Betamax tapes were only 60 minutes, and VHS 3-hour tapes could record more TV shows.

VHS was more popular, but Betamax refused to die. Production in the U.S. ended in 1993, and the last Betamax machine in the world was produced in Japan in 2002.

Ah, but the Compact Disc was a hit from the get-go. On August 31, 1982, an announcement was made in Tokyo that four companies, Sony, CBS/Sony, Philips, and Polygram had jointly developed the world's first CD system. Talk of the CD's demise are premature, sales are still in the hundreds of millions of discs a year.

The MiniDisc was introduced January 12, 1992. The recordable music format was originally based exclusively on ATRAC audio data compression, but the format never caught on in the U.S. MiniDiscs were popular in Japan and Asia as a digital upgrade from cassette tapes.

Which reminds me, Sony's ill-fated Elcaset came out in 1976. Like Betamax, Sony was trying to make a higher quality tape format, in this case better than the Philips Compact Cassette. Elcaset was better, but it was too large and cumbersome. Elcaset was a flop.

Speaking of which, Sony-Philips teamed up again to create the Super-Audio CD, which premiered in 1999. Indeed, the supersounding discs bested CD and offered backward compatibility with CD and DVD players--and 5.1 channel surround sound. SACD was praised by audiophiles, but fizzled in the market. Sony Records no longer releases new SACD titles, but the format continues to have the support of audiophile labels.

Which brings us to Blu-ray. Sony's Blu-ray is on the winning side of a format war having outlasted HD-DVD, but I wouldn't bet on Blu-ray's long-term prospects.

This list of Sony's hits and misses is hardly complete, please tell us about your favorite Sony formats in the comments.