Sony has announced it will retire the Walkman tape player in Japan, marking the end of one of the most successful consumer gadgets of all time.
(Credit: Sony Corp.)
But at least it outlived disco.
By today’s standards, the Walkman was a clunky plastic cassette player that required frequent replacing of two AA batteries. There was no shuffle. There was no storage to speak of. It could only play the number of songs on the tape. Jumping to a new song tasked an owner with fast forwarding, an inexact process that meant repeated stops to find the start of the desired song.
But up until July 1, 1979, the day the Walkman went on sale in Japan, people didn’t understand the concept of portable music. Not the kind that Sony offered. Up until then, portable music mostly meant holding a transistor radio up to your ear. The Walkman dazzled.
“We used to go visit Akio Morita and he had really the same kind of high-end standards that Steve did and respect for beautiful products,” Sculley told Kahney. “I remember Akio Morita gave Steve and me each one of the first Sony Walkmans. None of us had ever seen anything like that before because there had never been a product like that. This is 25 years ago and Steve was fascinated by it. The first thing he did with his was take it apart and he looked at every single part. How the fit and finish was done, how it was built.”
So, the Walkman’s designers likely influenced the iPod. And what about the Walkman’s branding? After the music player became a hit, Sony tried to capitalize by releasing such products as Pressman, Watchman, Scoopman, and Discman. Now, think iPod, iPhone and iPad.
(Credit: Donald Bell/CNET)
Of course, Jobs took portable music to a new level, one where even Morita’s company couldn’t compete. Jobs wrapped his offering around a cohesive and as yet unbeatable combination of hardware, software and digital retail. Sony knew hardware but was at best so-so in retail and a total disaster at developing software (See Sony Connect).
Some have speculated that Sony’s failure to keep up in a segment that the company created was one of the reasons it has given the Walkman such a quiet send off.
Still, the company should be proud. It’s unlikely we would have had the iPod without the Walkman and Morita, who helped set music free. For that, we owe them a deep and respectful bow.