Chapter2 Sony Goes to Battle for Its Favorite Child

Sony Goes to Battle for Its Favorite Child

By 1976, the year following the launch of Betamax, the Vietnam War had ended and North and South Vietnam were reunified. Sony celebrated its 30th anniversary that year, and Morita proudly announced the birth of the post color television era, the video age. The introduction of the home-use VCR had caused the biggest stir and created the greatest expectations for Sony since the launch of the Trinitron. Sony sales branches throughout Japan were buzzing about Betamax, and how to launch it in their regions became their number one priority. From the pre-launch stage, study sessions and training seminars explaining how to connect a Betamax to a television were frequent. At that time, however, annual domestic demand for VCRs was still less than 100,000 units. Morita was brimming with confidence when he made his announcement about the upcoming video age. Would home-use VCRs become popular? The industry had its doubts. At any rate, full-scale production of Betamax looked ready to roll. However, in the same year, something happened which took Sony by surprise.

In September 1976, JVC announced the VHS-format VCR to compete head to head against Betamax. With this announcement, the VCR format battle began. The JVC product boasted two hours of recording time twice that of Betamax. The year before the Betamax release, Sony had approached Matsushita and JVC, its two partners for the U Format, about unifying product specifications. At that time, Sony had disclosed information regarding the Betamax specifications and technology to the two companies. In response, Matsushita and JVC delayed any decisions about unifying standards for a year. After Sony announced the advent of the video age and followed this with an aggressive sales drive, JVC began its own highly effective advertising campaign.

Sony took a closer look at the VHS format and everyone was aghast. The technology and know-how that Sony had willingly disclosed when it proposed the unification of the U and Beta formats was incorporated in the VHS format. Although Sony had freely given the two companies access to its basic, patented technology, it was impossible for Sony to hide its shock and surprise.

Even though Sony's Beta format and JVC's VHS format were technologically similar, the cassette sizes were different. The two were not compatible. The fact that there was more than one format foretold a grueling struggle for leadership in the home-use VCR market and a deepening fight for market share. The last thing either side wanted was to inconvenience the user. But the VCR war had begun and everyone was running for cover.

Sony and JVC each courted a group of companies throughout 1976. Matsushita, a member of the U Format group, was ambivalent about where it stood. As the year drew to a close, Morita and Kihara visited Konosuke Matsushita, an adviser to Matsushita, at the company's head office in Osaka to receive a final decision concerning format unification. Samples of the Sony and JVC products with their lids removed were placed on the desk. Matsushita was forthright in his position. He said, "It pains me to have to reject Betamax, but the JVC product has fewer components. My company must choose the product that can be manufactured more cheaply, whether by 100 yen or 1000 yen per unit. That is the only way to overcome the disadvantage of being a latecomer."

One can imagine how Morita and Kihara felt upon hearing these words. In the end, Sony Toshiba, Sanyo Electric, NEC, Aiwa, and Pioneer supported Sony's Beta format. Matsushita, Hitachi, Mitsubishi Electric, Sharp, and Akai Electric accepted JVC's VHS format. The home electronics industry was thus divided into two camps.

Of course, Sony had complete confidence in its Beta format for home-use VCRs. Although the recording time was only one hour, the cassette size was smaller and the image quality was clearly superior. Moreover, technology that enabled two-hour recording while maintaining high picture quality had already been developed. If possible, Sony wished to achieve unification under its basic format. Toward this end, Sony continued working diligently to make prototype equipment available to potential format partners.

Sony embarked on an aggressive strategy as the leader of the Beta camp. Both groups released a continuous stream of new products. They worked furiously to enhance picture quality, lengthen recording time, diversify product functions, and improve operability.

By 1979, annual industry production of home-use VCRs in Japan had reached 2.2 million units, about eight times the volume produced in 1976. Although the industry was divided into two distinct camps, the video age had clearly become a reality.

Becoming a Comprehensive Video Manufacturer

A culture promoting the enjoyment of
the VCRs in the home is developed.

The VHS camp was skillful in attracting new members. It worked actively to supply its products to European and U.S. consumer electronics manufacturers on an OEM basis and made advances in the software business. The Beta camp had led in product development and launched products first, but it was losing ground day by day. As a result, three members of the Beta group, Toshiba, Sanyo, and NEC, began selling both formats, limiting VHS sales to overseas markets.

In response, Sony took an unusual approach to promote Betamax by running a series of advertisements over four days in major newspapers in Japan, beginning on January 25, 1984. This had consumers and indeed the whole industry buzzing. The first three advertisements featured negative head copy: "Is Betamax Dead?" "Is Buying a Betamax a Disadvantage?" and "What's Going to Happen to Betamax?" The final advertisement set the record straight: "Betamax: Getting More and More Exciting All the Time!" This novel ploy caught the industry and consumers by surprise. Sony had its own unique way of responding to mass media reports that Betamax was losing ground and that its aficionados were feeling uneasy.

Despite these endeavors, the movement from Beta picked up speed. In 1988, Sony itself began marketing VHS under a policy of supplying both formats. Senior managing director Nobuo Kanoi, who was also responsible for the Video Business Group, earnestly explained Sony's position to manufacturers in both camps.

Deputy president Masaaki Morita, who had worked nonstop on promoting home-use VCRs since around 1972, put it this way to employees, "Speaking frankly, we didn't want to manufacture VHS. However, you don't conduct business according to your feelings. Let's look at reality. The demand is getting stronger in the marketplace for Sony-made VHS products. Even if we have to bite the bullet, we ought to begin manufacturing VHS products for the sake of future growth. In any event, Sony aims to posture itself as the number one comprehensive VCR manufacturer, with Betamax for high quality picture and recording, 8mm formats for optimal compact personal use, and VHS for home video rental. Drawing on these strengths, we will be able to effectively respond to diverse consumer needs."

Sony was unable to unify the half-inch video tape recorder format for home use. However, in the course of competing with the VHS format while promoting its own, Sony learned a lot. In particular, Sony learned how to promote the unification of standards, something which has remained with the company ever since.

Moreover, in aiming to create a home-use VCR market, Sony introduced Betamax and its time-shift concept, both of which fundamentally changed the way people live. Betamax had significant ramifications for the motion picture industry and it proved to have considerable influence in transforming lifestyles. In addition, Betamax served to highlight the increasing importance of the software business.

In 1976, the year the video age was formally declared, a lawsuit was filed in the United States that attempted to stop this new video culture. Universal Pictures Inc. of the U.S. attempted to halt sales of Betamax and secure damages for copyright infringement, which the company asserted, would result from the pirated distribution of television programs using the technology. The case was taken as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and Sony fought it all the way. After an eight-year battle, Sony emerged triumphant, and consumers won the right to freely enjoy video tape recorders at home. Sony fought single handedly to both win the case and prevent the incident from affecting the whole industry. Free at last, the concept of time-shift spread rapidly around the world (see Part 1, Chapter 9).

Smaller and Smaller

Iwama (left) and Morio (right)
announce the "Video Movie" in Tokyo.

Although the chapter had closed on the U-matic and Betamax developments, the engineers of the 2nd Development Division had little breathing room before facing their next challenge. Their insatiable pursuit of dreams continued. When Betamax had first appeared on the market, Ibuka gave employees a new challenge. "Develop something new, so Betamax will seem like something from the past," he had said. This was in 1977, and the development of a next-generation format proceeded at a brisk pace. In the race to surpass both U-matic and Betamax, the fast and furious focus was on technology that enabled smaller and denser recording.

Under Kihara, the race to develop the technology fell principally on Minoru Morio, who had been transferred from the Television Business Department. Morio and other members of the development team were amateurs as far as VCR technology was concerned. However, their strength was their ability to not be affected by past experiences. Kihara wanted Morio to create a VCR half the size of the Betamax in all aspects. This meant the development of a machine one-eighth the volume of the Betamax. To this, Ibuka asked, "If Sony will develop a new VCR format, then why not aim for a ten-fold increase in recording density?" Just as he had done during the development of the Betamax, Ibuka simplified the target in order to make it achievable.

The next generation videocassette should be smaller than the Sony Diary. Morio's team was given the target of creating a videocassette tape approximately the same size as an audio cassette tape--something that would be easy to carry. In early 1979, Sony began working earnestly to achieve this goal, establishing the Project 80 Team and giving it the task of developing a next generation VCR for the 1980s.

In January 1980, Iwama submitted a proposal for a new product--a single unit video camera recorder employing a new type of semiconductor called the CCD (Charge Coupled Device). Since the early 1970s, Sony's main research center had been conducting research on this type of semiconductor. By incorporating a CCD, it was possible to develop a video camera more compact in size than could be achieved with a traditional image pickup tube design. As a result, the CCD was being considered as a replacement for the pickup tube, in other words as a new "eye" for the video camera (see Part 1, Chapter 4).

In January 1980, the first color video camera employing a CCD was developed for use in commercial aircraft. Sony's engineers desperately wanted to incorporate the CCD in the 8mm VCR. The next four months would involve many sleepless nights and missed meals as the Project 80 Team worked tirelessly to achieve this goal.

After four months of feverish activity, Sony announced the "Video Movie," a single unit camera and recorder. In July 1980, press conferences were held simultaneously in New York and Tokyo, with Morita and Iwama attending the respective events. The new system comprised of a color video camera employing a CCD and an 8mm wide tape weighing approximately two kilograms. Additionally, the videocassette tape was approximately the size of a matchbox and had a recording time of 20 minutes. Previously, the term "portable video system" referred to a 10 kilogram Betamax VCR connected to a video camera via cable. The giant leap in technology represented by the new single unit system was obvious.

There was an additional reason for holding the press conferences, and that was to call for the establishment of a common VCR format and request that manufacturers cooperate in developing a universal industry standard. In reality, the "Video Movie" was still a "concept product." Sony had decided to wait five years before launching it publically. During that time, Sony would develop and promote this new system with other manufacturers in order to avoid the Beta versus VHS battle. Forging ahead with a product that could be incompatible with others did not meet the needs of the expanding and growing market. With the lesson learned from the Beta/VHS episode still fresh in their minds, Morita and the Sony employees all worked to develop common standards.

In September 1980, Hitachi released a single unit camera recorder that was followed by a product from Matsushita in February 1981. Sony, with Hitachi, Matsushita, JVC, and Philips formed a committee to draft standards for the 8mm VCR. By March 1982, this committee had evolved into a group of 122 companies (which later increased to 127), known as the 8mm Video Conference. Progress on finalizing standards was slow but steady. Sony bided time, preparing to commence production once an agreement was reached.

Picture Quality of a 250,000 Pixel CCD

The 2nd Development Division began working on a new prototype 8mm VCR while discussions for a common standard were in progress. Sony's goal was to improve every aspect of the performance of the conventional VTR by 200 to 300% in the shortest time span possible. However, there was always a possibility that many hours of work could be rendered meaningless at any time by a change in the course of the discussions. Despite this threat looming in the background, the Project 80 Team continued to work towards the development of new technologies and how to apply them to the creation of a compact 8mm video product. The Team looked at various aspects of the new product, including technical analysis, LSI (Large Scale Integrated circuit), mounting technology, electrical and mechanical requirements.

Sony's first single-unit 8mm
video camcorder, the CCD-V8.

"The people involved in the design of a product should oversee its production." This is a fundamental and good part of Sony's product development philosophy, one that entails disbanding and reforming teams throughout the course of product development. It was applied in the development of both the Trinitron and the Betamax.

In November 1981, Morio and his group completed a prototype of the 8mm VCR and left the 2nd Development Division for the Atsugi plant, in order to work on the actual commercialization of the product. They joined the Video Camera Department, headed by Kiyoshi Yamakawa. In 1978, the CCD development unit, headed by Shigeyuki Ochi had moved from the Research Center to the Atsugi plant. Iwama and Masaaki Morita, director of the consumer TV and video operations at that time instructed Ochi and Morio, to work together on the 8mm VCR. To facilitate mass production, Takashi Kohno, who was a member of Morio's team, refined the design of this machine. To capitalize on the advertising value of the number eight, August 8, 1984 had been tentatively set as the launch date of the 8mm system.

Before the launch, however, another hurdle had to be overcome. While the color produced by existing CCDs was of a high quality, picture resolution was still relatively poor. The number of pixels needed to be increased to give a clearer, and more defined picture. Although Ochi set goals of 190,000, and then 250,000, pixels per CCD, progress was hampered. Morio wanted to provide the best possible picture quality with the 8mm VCR, but it looked as though the CCD might not be completed in time for the scheduled launch. As a precautionary measure, Kohno's team pursued the development of an alternate product, the Trinicon image pickup tube.

Seeing this situation, Masahiko Morizono, deputy president in charge of semiconductor operations, suggested a new plan of action. The team aimed to achieve an even higher goal. Morizono said to Ochi, "Don't rely on the safety net of the Trinicon. If you think that a CCD with a resolution of 250,000 pixels is required, then this is what you should aim for. Just go for it." With their backs against the wall, Ochi's team threw everything they had into their work.

Morizono had read the situation well. In an incredibly short period, the team produced a CCD with a resolution of 250,000 pixels. Morio's team had almost completed work on an 8mm VCR system that incorporated a Trinicon image pickup tube, but suddenly, they were given a CCD by Ochi to replace the Trinicon. They worked extremely hard to incorporate the new chip into the 8mm VCR. Meanwhile, the 8mm Video Conference had been continuing their negotiations. In April 1984, a set of common standards was finally decided.

Sony introduced its new video camcorder, the CCD-V8, on January 8, 1985. Although emphasis was placed on the compact size of the machine during its development, Sony was now stressing its picture quality. Reporters assembled at the press launch of the CCD-V8 were amazed that a video camcorder incorporating a CCD could produce such high picture quality. The CCD-V8 was released for sale in Japan on January 21 of that year at a price of 280,000 yen.

Morio was lavish in his praise of Ochi and said, "Half the reason Sony has been able to produce such outstanding picture quality is due to the efforts of Ochi and his team." Sony had shown foresight in leading the development of a new video format, and the Project 80 Team, assisted by Ochi's CCD development team, had succeeded in answering Ibuka's call for a ten-fold increase in recording density. The next generation video system, eight years in the making, had arrived.

8mm Video--A Dream

The design sketch handed out to members of
the Project 88 team.

The release of the CCD-V8 caused a stir among other consumer electronics makers. JVC, anxious to defend the VHS system, responded quickly by developing the C-cassette. Based on the VHS standard, the C-cassette was approximately one-quarter the size of a VHS cassette tape. Shortly thereafter, JVC released the VHS-C camcorder and launched a campaign to enlist the support of other consumer electronics manufacturers for this system.

Some concerned voices were heard at Sony, saying that the rival product was even smaller than the 8mm system. There was still some room for improvement in order to make the Sony camcorder even smaller, and Morio visited electronics stores to obtain the opinions of sales people. Their response was that, although a smaller-sized camcorder was more attractive to customers, the design of the current models had many problems. The awkward shape made carrying inconvenient, and there was a number of annoying problems, such as the lens and viewfinder caps, which often fell off.

The contest with the VHS-C camp to make a smaller and lighter camcorder continued to intensify. Through trial and error, Morio worked to reduce the size and weight of the camcorder without sacrificing picture quality. Development expenses mounted over a three-year period, and the product became unprofitable. Despite extensive efforts by makers to differentiate their products, the designs of the models being marketed were similar. Morio decided that going back to the drawing board was necessary to reconsider the concept behind the 8mm-video system and Sony's original dreams for these video products.

Their first step was to hold an in-house competition among designers to create the "most desirable" 8mm camcorder. Many usable designs were submitted, and Sony used these designs as a starting point for Project 88, which commenced at the end of 1986. The new project team's target was to create an 80,000 yen camcorder by August 8, 1988.

A team of eight engineers was assembled under Morio. They set about refining and enhancing the design of the 8mm camcorder, initially focusing on removal of the protruding microphone and lens. The design lessons that had been learned in previous projects were scrapped. The team adopted a totally new approach in its quest to create an 8mm camcorder that would gain the attention of consumers around the world.

Morio and his team wanted to create a model small enough that it could easily be used with one hand. However, picture quality would not be compromised. Previously, Sony had released a model called the CCD-M8, which had few functions and a lower price. Although it had a sleek design and was reasonably priced, this model did not sell well. At that time, camcorders were still expensive, and Sony made a serious error in removing the playback function from the CCD-M8. Sony had a long and proven track record of first determining the size of a product and then fitting in the necessary technology. Expertise was solicited from all areas of the company in an effort to optimize the design of the new 8mm camcorder.

After completing the first mock-up of this camcorder, Morio walked around Sony's head office and plants asking employees for comments on the design. The load/eject device for the videocassette tape was now actually controlled by the operator's hand while shooting. Although Morio encountered some initial opposition to this design, which seemed "contrary to common sense," gradually people in Sony gave their support.

Another problem causing a major headache for the project team was how to eliminate the microphone extension. If a highly sensitive hi-fi microphone was built into the body of the camcorder, it would pick up the noise made by the unit's other parts. The Audio Technology Center found a solution to this problem. The answer was to use two microphones, one to nullify the internal noise and the other to record sound.

Next, a new and smaller 6X zoom lens was designed and placed beside the body of the camcorder. Reducing the size of the lens was a considerable achievement, and in the process, the F number (aperture ratio)--which determines the amount of light that enters the lens--became lower, resulting in a darker image. Ochi's team once again came to the rescue, solving this problem by doubling the light sensitivity of the CCD.

Achieving the targets required a company wide concerted effort. Great contributions were made by the many people involved in the design of the product, procurement of materials and production process. All this lead to achieving the most desirable 8mm camcorder.