The rhetoric, urban legends and flat-out falsehoods surrounding the storied war could, and do, fill page after page both written and digital. So what really happened?
Sony launched the Betamax player in the U.S. in late 1975, that much is true. It had a top-loading deck, tape time of about one hour and was promptly sued by Universal for copyright infringement. (After years in court, Sony finally prevailed in a Supreme Court decision (5-4) in 1984 that set the standard for personal-recordings use. By the time the decision was made, there were 40 companies making VHS players vs. 12 making Betamax.)
JVC bowed its VHS VCR in 1976 with a bigger tape, but one that played twice as long-two hours. The difference in playing time (and the fact that the VHS could tape a whole movie and Beta couldn't) is cited by many as one of the key reasons Beta failed. Other reasons include that Beta was more expensive, fewer companies were licensed to manufacture it and Sony was the only company named in Universal's lawsuit and lost time, money and intellectual property in court.
A similar battle was narrowly diverted in the late '90s when Sony and Philips developed differing DVD technology than Toshiba. Just before production began on DVD players and discs, the two sides settled the dispute and ended up using most of Toshiba's technology.
So will the same thing happen again with Blu-ray and HD DVD?
Well, most analysts believe that the market won't support two formats in the long term. Still, consumers do have other options this time, including hard-drive players, or sticking with current DVD technology and simply waiting.