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Sony Walkman Turns 30 Years Old

July 1, 2009

Thirty years ago Sony launched the Walkman that would forever change the way people across the globe listen to music by making it completely portable.

On July 1, 1979, the Walkman was born, which helped to make the Japanese company a force to be reckoned with in the electronics world.

In the first two months of its inception, Sony sold 30,000 Walkmans, and then went on the sell 50 million within a decade.

But, as the decades rolled by, Sony came up against powerful rivals such as Apple, whose revolutionary iPod music player became a global phenomenon. Sony now struggles to reinvent itself and prove itself capable of being a pioneer in the industry one again.

Things are very different than they were when Sony engineer Nobutoshi Kihara first drew his designs for the Walkman by hand.

“Back in my days, we had to draw product designs on paper,” Kihara told AFP in an interview in 2006 after his retirement.

“I would close my eyes and imagine our products. I would imagine joggers with Walkmans to see how the hinges should move or how the products fit into the lives of the users.”

Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka first had the idea for the gadget while on a trip overseas, listening to music on a tape recorder much to heavy and bulky to be thought of as portable.

The Walkman was poorly received at first. Many retailers were doubtful about the success of a cassette player that could not record.

That fear proved to be unfounded, and now total sales of the Walkman have reached 385 million around the world, including newer digital models that use flash memory.

Sony says the name “Walkman” was picked partly because of the popularity of Superman at the time and because it was taking after an existing audio recorder called the “Pressman.”

Sony initially had planned to name the machine “Soundabout” in the United States and “Stowaway” in Britain, but after hearing that children in Europe were already asking their parents for a “Walkman,” they changed plans.

It eventually became a household name, and in 1986 it was inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary.

For the new generation of people growing up with iPods, the Walkman may seem cumbersome and impractical. The BBC asked 13-year-old Scott Campbell to exchange his Apple gadget for a vintage Walkman for a week.

He said his friends “couldn’t imagine their parents using this monstrous box.”

It also took him three days “to figure out that there was another side to the tape.”

“I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equalizer, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette,” he added.

In recent years, Sony has tried to update the Walkman’s style with new versions, including one that looks like a jellybean. 

It was somewhat successful, selling seven million Walkmans in the year to March, which is up from 5.8 million the previous business year, a company spokeswoman said.

But it has yet to be a real contender with Apple, which sold 100 million iPods in less than six years after its launch in 2001, making it the fastest selling music player in history. Sales have since hit 200 million.

Sony is hoping its new touch-screen X-series Walkman will boost sales of the gadget.

The Japanese media is speculating that Sony should just drop the Walkman name altogether, since it isn’t even considered in the same league as the iPod.

“The Walkman’s gap with the iPod has grown so definitive, it would be extremely difficult for Sony to catch up, even if it were to start from scratch to try to boost market share,” said Kazuharu Miura, analyst with Daiwa Institute of Research in Tokyo.

Some would say the success of the iPod is just an example of how Sony has lost its edge in recent years, unable to take advantage of the endless possibilities of the Internet in the digital age. 

On top of being overtaken in the music player department, Sony’s PlayStation 3 has been trumped by Nintendo’s Wii as the top-selling home video game console.

In May, Sony announced its first annual loss in 14 years and said it would stay in the red this year.

Chief executive Howard Stringer has promised to fortify the company in electronics by focusing on its games and movies. He is also cutting 16,000 jobs and shutting down about 10% of Sony’s manufacturing plants.

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