How Sony Created the Camcorder, But Failed

The camcorder as we know it was originally made up of two separate pieces. Sony would be the ones to bring the pair together, but it never caught on.

Sony has had a habit of creating formats and technologies that are proprietary and revolutionary. Blu-ry? A smash hit over HD-DVD. Betamax? Not quite as hot (at least outside of commercial work). Somewhere along that bumpy road, the company created the camcorder that we know today: the camera and the video tape recorder blended together.

Alec Watson from Technology Connections breaks out the “BetaMovie” and brings us through its ultimate demise. I won’t get overly technical when he explains it wonderfully in the above video. In short, the camera lost out to VHS systems. Ironically, while Sony aimed to lock users into their Betamax system, VHS had no such ideas. You could use a VHS camcorder as a regular VHS player, saving time and money.

Watson also created a fascinating look into the retro format wars in a separate two-part video. How did Beta lose to VHS when they were of better quality and were released before VHS? It’s a lesson about the risks Sony takes when they create formats like Beta and Blu-ray.

Feel like checking out the system yourself? You can pick up an old BetaMovie system on eBay still. Most are a little degraded, but that’s not why you buy one. Does anybody else remember this system or others? Personally, our family had a VHS camcorder back in the day, and the convenience of playing back tapes was a huge selling point.

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user-187388's picture

I remeber these first combination cameras and video tape recorders. My first home video recorder was a beta and I bought it because the quality was considered superior to vhs and tapes and machines were less bulky. Unfortunately I had to concede to a vhs recorder and then also embarked on a series of Panasonic VHS camcorders. I still have the prosumer MS4 super vhs model and also a super vhs panasonic editing deck. I had 2 of these but recently sold one of them to a young enthusiastic blogger of VHS TV ads. Progressed to the Canon XL1 mini dv camera and also a smaller standard panasonic mini dv camcorder.The world of video camcorders has been an amazing journey. Before that I started on standard 8mm film movie cameras.My whole photographic journey has been one of wonder and amazement. I still like to use some of my old gear.Thanks for the article.

user-186898's picture

I shot with a Panasonic camera and portable VHS recorder in the 80's. The quality of the early camcorders was awful. The only way to get decent quality with 1/2 inch tape back then was a separate camera and recorder. My first VCR was a Betamax. Great quality. Back then I didn't know the backstory as to why VHS was taking off. I couldn't understand why everyone was settling on such an inferior format.

If someone told me 35 years ago I'll be able to have broadcast quality video, with editing capabilities with a device I could slip in my pocket I certainly would have laughed at them and called them a liar!

Stephen Kampff's picture

I also forgot to mention that I've been seeing more and more old school cameras in the blogosphere/fashion world. Usually it's a mini-DV camcorder (like a Canon XL2) but on occasion you'll see something older. Total hipsters but I suppose it's a look worth seeking!

From the Betamovie to the now Sony Alpha Mirrorless cameras. Sometimes they lose, sometimes they win ...