If Beta had been better we'd be burying it now

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to pay our last respects to VHS. Friend, colleague, practical joker, cut down by digitalis. Thanks for the memories. The Citizen obituary said after only 28 years, VHS tapes won't be made as of 2006. In an intimation of mortality, a year ago the Daily Telegraph said Britain's largest electronics chain no longer sold VCRs, because DVD players now outsold them 40:1, adding unkindly "VHS seem as old-fashioned as the eight-track audio player or Betamax" and "Like many consumer technologies... video recorders owed much of their early success to providing easier access to pornography."

Please. Nihil nisi bonum. At a time like this, let us set aside such issues (or dub them onto DVD for later) and remember our friend as an unassuming everyman: easy to use, affordable and rugged. Without the VCR, how could we have enjoyed hours of our uncle, mixing up the on and off buttons, missing all the key bits of his son's wedding but filming his shoes going from room to room? It wouldn't be the same on 8 mm.

I hear rumblings from the back. Lunch will be served shortly. But first, on this solemn occasion, let us also lay to rest an unpleasant rumour VHS could never in his lifetime erase. Nonconformists all claim he bore the mark of Cain, having slain his younger more virtuous sibling Beta. They pillory him as proof of "network effects" through which (hey, get back in your seats, this eulogy ain't over) an inferior product that establishes itself early can keep superior rivals out of a market.

It is a slander on the stiff. Beta, whose picture wasn't better, arrived in North America almost two years earlier. VHS outsold his older sibling within six months of birth, not due to skulduggery or skull-hittery but to longer record/play time which people actually wanted. To some snobs it just meant more tacky images of wedding receptions and suburban back yards. But while Beta cassettes were easier to carry, one hour is a bit short for home feature film viewing.

The "network effects" charge is also a slander on markets. One writer in a theological magazine recently said "the Dvorak keyboard has joined the Betamax video format and the Macintosh computer in the pantheon of counter-examples to the myth that Capitalism produces the best possible product." Some pantheon. The only test showing the "superiority" of Dvorak was done by Mr. Dvorak. (As for the Mac Legion of Doom, you already sent me your worst letters and I'm still using a PC. Ha ha ha ha ha!)

Network effects exist but are minor. Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in The Rebel Sell note that because it takes two to fax, "each individual who buys a fax machine creates a slight positive benefit for all the other fax owners." But then they say: "This is why low-priced fax machines, which became available in 1984, never really took off until 1987," when a million were sold. Three years doesn't sound long to me, and by the time I escaped grad school it was safe to assume everybody had one. But now when people ask if they can send me a fax, I say why would you want to? Just e-mail a PDF. Or if you're going all retro use some nice vellum and a quill. The early dominance of fax machines no more obstructed the Internet than the early dominance of pens obstructed the fax.

Heath and Potter call VHS vs. Beta "the classic example" of network effects. But if Beta had been better we'd be burying it now. Volvos and Macs sell and you can get dark chocolate in corner stores. Markets, like nature, abhor a vacuum. If they also abhor your product, guess what? Can anyone out there honestly say, as they burn 4.7 gigs of digitized embarrassing golf lesson video onto a DVD with an iPod in each ear, that we're stuck in a technological dark age because of VHS? Phooey.

Despite all the obituaries written on it, the market is not currently stretched out in the parlour. It's out providing yet another superior product while saving the environment. DVDs deliver more data for less raw material and waste. Whether every extra feature enriches human existence is another matter, but technology is the servant of morality not its master. One day I'll beam wireless images from my computer (if that word hasn't become as quaint as "LP" or "modesty" in the age of cerebral implants) to my 28-foot plasmodic 3DV and if they're indecent it will be between me, God and the electronic eavesdropping "war driver" hovering nearby in his helicar.

Nothing is perfect; DVDs suffer the drawback that one scratch means years of carefully preserved rubbish is gone. On the plus side, you can easily make six perfect copies. True, small bank safety deposit boxes are now the wrong size because they won't take a CD or DVD; for the considerable expense of refitting their strong-rooms bankers can expect the usual sympathy. But my guess is that network effect won't matter.

For everything there is a time: A time to vinyl, a time to VHS, a time to digital, a time to teleport. In lieu of flowers please e-mail grainy images of your kid's Bar Mitzvah. VHS lived briefly, but gloriously. And left so many fine memories. Please close your eyes briefly while I chuck this pile of tapes in the alley.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson