vcrVideo cassette recorders may be a couple of generations behind the times but the history of their adoption turns out to be quite fascinating. Written by Josh Greenberg, From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video is a very accessible and easy to read history of two decades or so of a ubiquitous household product.

What is really interesting about Greenberg’s treatment is the emphasis, not on the technology, but on the social context for its adoption. VCRs were initially released for what we now call ‘time shifting.’ But it turned out that a fairly sizeable group of television and movie obsessed hobbyists were instrumental into turning it into something more; a new way to distribute movies in particular. (A few years ago, I benefitted from a similar hobbyist community that managed to hack Tivo for Australia). Indeed, it was this more than anything that led to the demise of Betamax and the victory for VHS because the former could only initially play tapes about one hour long. The desire to consume movies led to video stores that iterated between several business model attempts before settling on a library model. But at the same time, the video store facilitated a community of shared recommendations that stimulated the demand for movies further.

There is much more in the book. If you are interested at all about the social drivers of technology adoption, this book is a must-read.

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