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Sony's Betamax, long thought dead, officially gets last nail in its coffin

Sony finally acknowledges that the world didn't embrace its rival to the videocassette, years after that format faded from the market, too.

The first US-market Betamax video recorder, the 1982 Sony SL-2000 portable. It's sitting on top of a TT-2000 timer unit.
Rafe Needleman/CNET

Sometimes the tape keeps going after you thought it had run out. But three decades?

It turns out that Sony is still making videocassette tapes for its Betamax video recording systems, largely vanquished from the gadget scene in the 1980s.

Not for much longer, though. Sony announced Wednesday that it will stop producing Betamax tapes in March of next year.

"This will make the final shipment of all our memory media for Betamax," Sony said in a Japanese-language statement.

Tech standards come and go, and for the most part, Betamax has been long gone.

In its heyday, it was at the center of a cultural moment that may have been the first time consumers really had to worry about competing tech standards. Its battle with the rival VHS standard, the eventual winner, was a momentous one in an era when a television set was probably the most significant electronic device in many households.

Sony introduced the Betamax format in 1975, a year before rival Japanese firm JVC unveiled the VHS tape. Both allowed recording and playback of TV shows and movies. Although many people considered Betamax to be a superior technology, VHS became the product of choice because it was cheaper and the tapes lasted three hours instead of one. Even Sony ended up selling VHS devices.

Eventually videotapes were trumped by DVD and Blu-ray discs and, later, by digital video recorders and video streaming.

Betamax was also at the center of a landmark ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1984, which established that recording video at home was legal, not a violation of copyrights, as long as it was for personal use.

In its announcement Tuesday, Sony said it would no longer produce its cassettes in Japan, the only remaining country where they are available. The company has not produced a Betamax recorder since 2002. Sony said it has sold more than 18 million units of Betamax devices worldwide since their debut.

When Sony stopped making Betamax players, it had only sold 3,000 that year (and only in Japan), according to an August 2002 article from The Los Angeles Times.

Sony and JVC did not reply to CNET's request for comment.