A look back at technological innovations

“ Sometimes the erotic has been a force driving technological innovation; virtually always, from Stone Age sculpture to computer bulletin boards, it has been one of the first uses for a new medium.”

There is no question that every medium has been used for porn. It’s quite another thing to claim that every medium has been invented for the purpose of porn. Or that porn was critical to the success of the medium.

Good luck trying to prove the latter two claims. Even the oft-cited claim that VHS beat Betamax because of the availability of porn is highly questionable.

Some facts:

  • There was porn on Betamax

  • Both devices were invented for the purpose of recording TV shows - the ability to purchase pre-recorded content in either format came many years later, after VCRs (both kinds) achieved a large enough customer base to make the concept profitable.

  • The biggest reason for VHS winning out over Betamax appears to be:

    • Sony’s patent restrictions and licensing fees - so there were fewer manufacturers using the Betamax format, and they tended to be more expensive than VHS machines.

    • The amount of content on a tape. VHS tapes were available in 2-hour lengths (T120), which could hold 4 and 6 hours of content (with a degradation in quality). And later 2:40 lengths (T160) which could hold up to 8 hours in SLP mode.

      In contrast, the most popular Betamax tape (L-750) could hold only 1.5 hours at βI speeds (can only be recorded by the very oldest Betamax units), 3 hours at βII and 4.5 hours at βIII. And the longest Betamax tapes made (L-830) only go up to 5 hours at βIII.

      At a time when tapes were pretty expensive, being able to record more TV shows on a single tape was a major advantage for the typical consumer.

See also:

“I didn’t mean at all to imply that “ to claim that every medium has been invented for the purpose of porn.”

The “R” in VCR stands for “recorder.” A very big reason why Sony Betamax turned out to be a big flop was that it initially didn’t record; it just played prerecorded stuff. When recording was added on in extreme desperation, it only recorded for a lot less time than the overwhelming dominance of VHS VCRs. It took a very long time it took for Sony to accept the fact that the Betamax format had become a very big looser in the marketplace. It was the same story with Sony Walkman vs. iPod.

I was the consumer electronics ad sales manager for the second and third largest circulation magazines in the US over that time, and a lot if it was spent on the Sony account, including during the VHS/Betamax war.

Please cite a source for this.

Ummmm… The Walkman was invented decades before the iPod (or any other digital music player) and quickly became the most popular brand of portable cassette player.

Or are you referring to an MP3 player sold with the “Walkman” brand? If such a product ever existed, I don’t think many people have even heard of it.

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Of course it was! And it quickly created very humongous revenue and brand popularity streams for Sony. There even was a Sony TV portable Watchman.

What Apple did with iPod was to very, very quickly grab the lead in portable music players from Sony, JVC, etc. And it very quickly became a very enormous lead.

And Apple made things even very, very much worse for Sony when they developed Music. They literally kicked Walkman’s derrière a second time, and helped labels and artists reclaim the revenue they deserved. It was a lot easier to carry and walk around with a cute and tiny little iPod, as well as to legally acquire songs and spoken word stuff you liked, than with a big clunky Walkman and DVDs or tapes, depending on which kind of Walkman you had. And Music and iPod helped establish a network to compensate artists and labels that helped when Napster was expanding across the globe, before the US and other governments put the Cabosh on Napster.

Steve Jobs played his cards brilliantly with iPod and Music.

You are assuming that nobody else would have released a successful digital media product to displace cassettes and CDs if Apple hadn’t made the iPod.

I don’t think that is a reasonable assumption. If Apple didn’t do it, then someone else would. Maybe a year or two later, and maybe no single product would have had that kind of market dominance, but physical media was doomed the minute cheap digital storage media became available.

Products like the Rio failed because they used tiny storage devices (SD cards with sizes in the MB, not GB), so you had to choose between so much data compression that sound quality degraded, or only a tiny number of songs on the device. If the iPod never happened, then we’d probably be using some future evolution of those MP3 players (including some made by Sony with “Walkman” branding), which would have worked just fine in an era of multi-GB SD cards.

To be fair, cassette tapes weren’t that big. I had both a Walkman and a Discman and it wasn’t that hard to carry or use either. The Walkman clipped to my belt, while I had a belt with a Discman pocket to carry it with. My car had at various times a cassette player and/or a disc player. (My current car has a disc player, but that’s mostly for Blu-rays and the rear seat entertainment screen.) Before the iPod, they worked fairly well. After the iPod, they were no longer necessary, although I did use my Walkman to digitize my cassettes (and then mostly over time rebuy the music in digital since it didn’t sound very good digitized).

Quite a few competing products popped up immediately after iPod hit the market. None of them have even made a tiny dent in iPod sales, even collectively. Here are just a few of the many disasters, starting with the largest and perhaps most expensive disaster:

(Microsoft’s Zune became not just a many billion $+ failure, in it’s time it was a significant butt of rather nasty jokes.)

Microsoft 'objected to the Zune joke in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2')

Here are some of the not so funny examples of failed digital music players:



A quick search will turn up even more disasters for iPod competitors.


Yikes. A bunch of mighty extraordinary claims made on this thread recently. Take advantage of the salt shaker posted above. O 80s, we hardly knew ye. Peace to all!

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I’d say a major factor in digital music displacing physical media and Apple’s eventual dominance in the category was the combination of the iPod and the iTunes Store. Music players are useless without music files. Music files are useless without music players. And Steve Jobs’ skills in design, marketing, and persuasion, plus his vested interest in the entertainment industry through Pixar and Disney, made Apple the only entrant in the space that could get the record labels on board.

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Two charts that capture income, it’s interesting to see how Digital download sales really only slowed down the rapid decline in revenue. The first chart doesn’t show additional revenue, performances etc, it’s purely sale of media.

Of course the Internet, Napster, the arrival of the MP3 format, were all factors perhaps bigger than Apple in terms of impact, but undoubtedly Apple’s particular mix of offerings were set up to capitalise on what happened after.

The rise of streaming and subscriptions swamping all as we know.

Back in the early Nineties, I had so many conversations with CEOs across New York asking about the Web and how was money to be made. At the time the only businesses making money online was gambling and porn, and porn was all about subscriptions.


This is 100% true. What is especially astounding is that they accepted Steve’s offer of 70% commission to the record labels without even trying to negotiate for more. They thought that the iTunes Store would yield nothing but chump change, and that almost nobody would want to manage music libraries, or walk or drive around while plugged into earphones.

VHS and Betamax were not the only technologies in the running for home video distribution in the 1970s and 1980s. RCA, the Radio Corporation of America, started developing what was originally called “Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED)” in 1964 Capacitance Electronic Disc - Wikipedia . It was an analog disk designed to be played somewhat like a phonograph but with an electronic pickup. RCA was a leader in the electronic entertainment business, but the company had management and technical problems.

RCA was a big player in recorded phonograph records and in producing radios and televisions, so video disks were a logical market for them to try. However, as a distributor, they thought the big money would be in selling prerecorded disks, and focused on that approach. The technology was not compatible with home recording, and audio was pushing its technological limits, so it didn’t hit the market until 1981. By then video cassette recorders were already on the market, and they could be used to record video off the air, unlike video disks. The public had little interest, and RCA lost a bundle and eventually was sold.

It’s also been said that RCA lost the market because they didn’t want to sell porn, and there might have been some truth in that. However, the real failure was that few people wanted to buy prerecorded videos at the time because of their cost. The first big success for VCRs was recording television programs; video rental followed.

Laser video disks also were developed, and caught best on in Japan. They also required prerecorded programs, but the video quality was better, and it laservision mainly interested cinemaphiles.

Another big mistake was that RCA also placed very big bets on CED Video Disks. They were grooved like regular record player music disks of the time and were very easy to accidentally scratch and a PITA to store. By the time CEDs were released Laser Disks were already starting to get established, and BetaMax and VHS video cassettes that pioneered video playback, recording, and re-recording, had just begun to enter and started to overtake the market. They also had superior playback across the board. RCA’s prerecorded video disks didn’t stand a chance anywhere.

And just about three years later, “1984 would not be like 1984”

Technology Connections produced five videos (playlist) all about CED. It failed for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that it took so long for the tech to become reliable that the rest of the world (including VCRs and laserdisc) was able to take over the market.

Had CED shipped when originally planned, there would have been no competition, and it might have succeeded. But that didn’t happen.

CED discs shipped in a hard plastic carrier. You would never touch the disc itself, but would insert the carrier into the player, then pull a lever to mount it in the player, then withdraw the sleeve. Then do the reverse to eject the disc.

You would have to try hard to physically touch a disc. But yes, even the slightest touch would cause damage. Which is why you were never supposed to manually crack open the carrier or do anything else that might expose the disc.

it was a pretty cool piece of tech, but it was late and overpriced.


Very interesting; thanks. I was an editor at a laser magazine in the late 70s, so I was on the laser side of the technology race. The first commercial laserdisk players used gas helium-neon lasers, which were clunky-tubes containing mixtures of helium and neon. Once semiconductor diode lasers were introduced in Compact Disc audio players in 1982, the path to video disks was set.

Business-wise, RCA bet the company on capturing a massive market for CED and in the end they lost big.


If you are trying to claim that without Apple, personal digital media players would never have become popular, you’re going to require a much stronger argument than the fact that nobody else was able to successfully compete against iPod.

Digital music players were around before iPod, and they were gaining popularity - which is why the RIAA went into a panic over them. If iPod was never invented, then people would have gone on to use them or their successors or other players from other vendors, including the big-name audio manufacturers like Sony.

No doubt that putting the two together was a stroke of genius, and Apple was the first into that particular market. But…

  • Music files are not useless without players. People were (and still are) playing music files on their computers. Remember the “media PC”?

    People were also burning CDs with their music. Custom mix discs were a very popular thing in the days where portable and car-mounted CD players were popular. Remember Apple’s “Rip, Mix, Burn” campaign?

    It’s also worth noting that iTunes (first release, January 2001) predated the iPod (first model October 2001).

  • Music players are useless without music files, but remember that the iPod predated the store (which debuted in April 2003 - about 1.5 years after the first iPod), and there were MP3 players before the iPod. People were populating them with music they ripped from CDs (and also music they illegally downloaded).

The RIAA got literally everything wrong WRT digital media. So this doesn’t surprise me either.

But that 70% figure was actually a good deal for them. The music industry is used to several layers of large markup on physical media distribution. The $16 CD you buy probably cost the retailer $12. The distributor probably sold it to the retailer for $8. And the record label probably sold it to the distributor for $4. (And the artist probably got less than $1 from that). So, if that disc has 10 tracks, the $1.60 you paid per track produced $0.40 for the record label (25%), and that 25% isn’t just profit, since it needs to pay for the manufacturing costs. So Apple paying them 30% for tracks sold at $1 each was a better deal than what they were getting from physical media.

Where the record industry blew it is that, as copyright holders, they could have just as easily run their own music store web sites, getting 100% of the revenue. They could have sold tracks for as low as $0.50 each and still ended up with more profit than from CDs.

Many people (myself included) were saying things like this at the time. The fact that the RIAA chose to declare war on their customers (by suing everybody they could identify as having downloaded music) instead of embracing the tech (for higher profits) just shows how messed up they were (and probably still are).

Maybe I wasn’t making myself clear. Here ‘s some pictures of Sony’s original Walkman and a few of its variations:

And Apple’s beautiful sleek, lightweight, tiny and very sexy first generation iPod, which could hold a whole lot more music and came with tiny and comfortable ear buds, that had far superior and fabulous sound.


IMHO, it’s an excellent example of the Steve Jobs/Jony Ive design partnership. They knocked the ball out of the park, and set Sony Walkman and its many competitors up for a very quick and painful death. And iPod’s edgy original commercials, developed by the same people that produced “1984,” made the difference between it and Walkman, etc., very, very clear:

From what I heard at the time was that Steve and just about everyone else expected they would go for about 85%, and negotiate from there.

Here’s two examples of the Sony Walkman commercials: