Home / Opinion / What the VCR’s demise tells us about technology

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete," R. Buckminster Fuller, American architect and inventor, once said. Last week, Japan’s Funai Electric announced the inevitable—it was producing the last batch of the video cassette recorders (VCRs) using the video home system (VHS). With the announcement, the digital era—with its CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs and torrents—drove the last nail on the coffin of analog technology.

Taking off from the cassette player technology used in cameras, it was in the 1970s that the VHS was first launched. It soon crossed over from the realm of technology to culture by redefining the movie-viewing experience. For the first time, individuals were able to watch their favourite movies multiple times within the comfort of their home. Collections—of Star Wars, Star Trek, Warner Bros. cartoons—became an obsession in many Western households and videophiles were born. In India, the VCR boom took off in the 1980s notwithstanding the high excise duties imposed on VCRs and cassettes, gaining popularity for its recording feature, especially for serial renditions of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The VHS made ‘time shifting’ possible—by facilitating viewers to record television soap operas and watch it at leisure.

Besides these vital features of recording and home viewing, the VHS’s success can also be attributed to its compatibility with television sets, its affordability and capacity. The two-hour recording capacity of VHS was, in fact, one of the primary factors which helped it win the standards war with Sony’s Betamax in spite of the latter’s better picture quality. According to the 1982 edition of the New York magazine, VHS systems outsold the Betas by more than three to one within five years of its introduction. Ironically enough, today as VHS slides out of focus, it is Sony’s Blu-ray disc that tops the charts in terms of market demand. The reason for the role reversal remains the same—greater capacity.

However, success cannot be attributed to this single factor. The only fixed element here is variability. Inventions have done better for filling in the gaps of existing technology and not just improving upon them. While the magnetic tape of VHS technology enabled greater capacity, the laser technology in compact discs (CDs), smaller data pits and track path in digital versatile discs (DVDs) and blue laser in Blu-ray discs were successful for their durability, stability and better picture quality. The new trend of online streaming, on the other hand, is thriving due to its easy access and affordability. Thus, to stay relevant, the product has to explore different facets which could prove more useful to the user.

According to innovation theory, these basic innovations when accumulated become part of larger cycles spanning four to five decades known as Kondratiev waves. These waves which have three phases—expansion, stagnation and recession—are integral to the creation of new jobs and industries as well as destruction of old ones.

Though not within the exact time frame of the second industrial revolution, the VCR was one of its last products. The telegraph—one of the first inventions which gave rise to this technological wave—only recently died out in 2013. The phasing out of VCR and the telegraph are the natural progressions which occur in any innovation cycle. As Joseph Schumpeter points out, it is part of a “creative destruction". DVDs—a by-product of the third industrial revolution which saw the transition from analog to digital—were also party to this process. Their arrival led to the replacement of old cassette shops with DVD shops. But it is unlikely that this will be the end. The rise of online streaming is already leading to the decline of the latter and an increased demand for another completely different set of job profiles. According to the World Economic Forum’s report on the fourth industrial revolution, more than one-third of the skills considered important today will be irrelevant five years from now.

The significance of the VCR being phased out is thus not restricted to the entertainment industry. It points to a larger picture: to stay relevant, both machines and humans must upgrade and update. Innovation is an integral part of productivity and growth. Luddites and Rip Van Winkles, who fight against technology and sleep through innovation cycles, would do well to embrace the change.

Which other technologies are on their way out in the 21st century? Tell us at

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