Old Technologies Die Hard

November 11, 2015, 2:23 PM UTC
Sony Beta SL-F30UB video cassette recorder, 1985.
JAPAN - JULY 05: Betamax VCR manufactured by Sony, Japan. In 1974 the Sony corporation released the first VCR on the market, heralding the arrival of the video age. The name ?Betamax? originated from the shape of the tape path in the new loading system, which closely resembled the Greek letter beta when seen from above. Max, a shortening of maximum, was then added to suggest greatness. Sony's VCR could be connected to a television and used to record up to an hour of video and audio on tape. The time-shift function allowed consumers to record whatever programs they liked and watch them at their leisure. In 1976, rivals JVC came out with their own VHS format VCR, which doubled the recording time available, and within a decade the Betamax had become virtually obsolete. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Science & Society Picture Librar SSPL—Getty Images

The story of the demise of the Sony Betamax caught my eye Tuesday afternoon. I’m old enough to remember the VCR format wars of the 1980s, and I thought Betamax video was long gone. Not so, reports Fortune’s Robert Hackett. Although Betamax production peaked in 1984, amazingly Sony (SNE) kept making the player/recorders until 2002. Apparently someone kept using them, because Sony has announced it will stop shipping the cassettes next year. They lasted 40 years, which isn’t bad for a failed product, especially one whose popularity peaked in the middle of the Reagan Administration.

That got me thinking about how hard it is to kill old technologies. I know almost no one who isn’t an investment banker who uses a BlackBerry (BBRY). Yet that beleaguered company has a market capitalization of $4 billion. The heyday of the mainframe computer was the 1960s. Still, IBM (IBM) not only continues to sell them, it introduced a brand-new line earlier this year, the z13. “Built for the mobile era,” IBM brags about the system in its 2014 annual report, while also asserting that its mainframes “process 75% of the world’s business data.” The mainframe is part of a rapidly declining business at IBM, yet the company continues to invest heavily to reverse the trend.

Examples of graying technology that persevere abound. While reporting an upcoming feature in Fortune Magazine about athletic footwear king Nike (NKE), I spoke to apparel analysts who praised Nike’s masterful use of SAP software to manage its global inventory and distribution system. SAP (SAP)? Isn’t the German company mocked in Silicon Valley for being hopelessly behind on the cloud, the hipper virtual way to deliver software services? I asked around and found out that yes, SAP is behind, but no newfangled offering can hold a candle to SAP’s industrial-strength handling of physical-goods companies like Nike.

The bright shiny objects of technology are exciting, new, and absolutely the future. But don’t count out the rusty old tech war horses just yet. They’re extremely difficult to kill.

This article first appeared in the daily Fortune newsletter Data Sheet. Subscribe here for a daily dose of analysis from Adam Lashinsky and a curation of the day’s technology news from Heather Clancy.

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