Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Beta testing over

Our VCR packed it in the other day, so we went on an expedition to find a new one. It was fruitless. It seems that the humble VCR is as dead as the dodo.

None of the stores we visited would sell us a simple video cassette recorder. If we wanted one that came as a combo with a DVD, well that was possible if a trifle expensive. In the end we bought ourselves a DVR, rendering our video library somewhat useless. However, since our video library consisted of a copy of the Phantom Menace and two Marillion concerts it won't be missed too much (especially not by my wife).

So my thoughts turned to the history of the humble video recorder. The idea of recording TV signals onto tape was one that baffled engineers for some time. The tape had to pass over the recording/reading at high speed to accommodate the require amount of information. An early prototype fired a huge reel of tape past the recording head ... 240 inches per second ... for a few seconds of recording time.

The practical solution was simple but revolutionary ... rotate the heads in the opposite direction to the tape. That way the relative speed between them was still high, but the length of tape require was dramatically reduced. The video recorder became a practical device.

The VCR was one of those devices that the marketers were slow to grasp. The recording features of many models were not advertised, as executives could not fathom why anyone would record a TV program. It was assumed the market would be for pre-recorded tapes, which were consequently over-priced and under-marketed ... and under-sold. No-one predicted the rise of the video rental store.

When my parents first owned a Video (we left the CR off ... it was the 80s, we didn't have time to say it all, it was the me generation, not the meh generation.) the only place that rented tapes was the local petrol station. I remember being horribly bummed because they had a copy of Vanishing Point but it was on Betamax. Oh, how I wished we had a Beta recorder.

The whole Beta versus VHS conflict was a lopsided war, because the Beta blank tapes were expensive and too short to record a long movie (with adverts). Who cares which one was better, one was more practical and cheaper. It was the Tiger tank versus the T-34 all over again, but with fewer deaths.

The current file-sharing controversy is very familiar to those who remember the movie industries attempts to outlaw VCRs, through long lawsuits and public statements about the death of movies.

There have been plenty of innovations whose impact was not foreseen clearly by those who created them. The computer, famously.

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
- Popular Mechanics, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

- Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

But one everyone forgets that car was also seen in very limited terms by its developers. Cars were seen an expensive luxury items. Basically they were all high-end sports cars. It was assumed cars would only be sold to the few people at the top of the economic pile. The rest of the populace would make do with trucks, buses, trains and so on. Mass transit for the masses. Then the Model T Ford came along and completely changed the market and the world.

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