Of all the fierce battles in history, few have been as decisive as when Sony’s Betamax took on JVC’s VHS tapes. Sure, the battle was hardly bloody – although some conference room discussions in Japan might have made Custer’s tent at Little Bighorn positively tranquil – but the outcome saw the VHS victor totally obliterate its well-heeled, generally superior competitor with one fell swoop.
It seems that history is repeating itself as we watch Apple’s iPad take on an increasingly large number of rivals touting the Android operating system. The comparisons are easy, but their eventual outcome is our focal point and our take-home lesson. As marketers attempt to reach increasingly wide audiences over a vast array of media, tablets could play a massive role in the near future.
VHS won out over Betamax not because it was better – most historians and technophiles will agree that Sony’s system was vastly more advanced – but because JVC was willing to share its technology.
Sony assumed that the video recording market would remain relatively small and the company assumed that domination would come easy. The Japanese giant had created a fast, high resolution recording system that it wasn’t eager to share with anyone else.
Meanwhile, JVC developed the VHS tape, which wasn’t as sophisticated, but could be produced at a marginally lower cost. Forward-thinking JVC was also much smaller than Sony and it realized that, in order to be successful, it would need some outside help. JVC licensed its VHS technology to nearly every major electronics manufacturer, which meant that VHS recorders quickly became readily available – at competition-driven low prices.
Sony assumed that its high-end, high-quality Betamax would win, but consumers elected to go after the cheaper offering, even as they acknowledged that it was inferior.
Parallels to Apple’s iPad are obvious. Apple has made its operating system open source – meaning that anyone capable can develop applications – but it won’t provide a license to other electronics manufacturers. Apple wants to control hardware, just like Sony did. Android – purchased by Google in 2005 – has been distributed to licensees since 2007. As a result, it’s hard not to find an Android-powered device at any electronics store (other than at an Apple Store, of course).
That’s not to say that the iPad isn’t a great device. It is highly capable and its integration with Apple’s other products makes it truly impressive. But the cheapest iPad will set buyers back $500, about the price of three low-end Android-powered tablets.
Without a time-traveling app, we can’t tell who will win this battle. But as we continue to develop applications and look for unique ways to reach consumers, we can’t ignore the potential of these two devices.
Don’t be the electronics store that stocked up on Betamax tapes only to be stuck with dusty, unsold merchandise years later.