First released in Japan in 1979, the Walkman was commissioned by Sony president Akio Morita, who wanted to be able to listen to opera music on his overseas flights (presumably getting one's "boom box" out was not appropriate).
While Philips had created the dictaphone, allowing secretaries and journalists to record and transcribe speech, Sony was the first to adapt cassette technology – an innovation on its mono "Pressman" device – for popular consumption.
A miniature but chunky cassette player was created by Sony's engineering team, and the term "Walkman" – a hand-held device that could emit, via headphone, your mix-tape of Hanson, Nirvana and Silverchair – entered the common lexicon and the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986.
More than 50,000 units sold in the first two months and the music biz was revolutionised. With portability combined with privacy, in the individualistic, brand-conscious '90s, music became part of one's personal brand. Between 1987 and 1997, the height of the device's popularity, several new versions were released. The discman, MiniDisc and MP3 players followed.
We were officially, as Cliff Richard sang, wired for sound.
Then there was Apple. And the iPod. In much the same way that Nokia mobiles were usurped by the iPhone, the Walkman became nearly redundant. It was no longer hot technology property.
While iPod sales have dropped off as the iPhone has become the do-everything device, Apple recorded a net income of $13.1 billion in the December 2011 quarter (up on $6 billion for the same period in 2010), selling 37 million iPhones in the three months to Christmas and giving Apple a market value of $416 billion.
By contrast, Sony has announced a massive $6.4 billion annual net loss for the fiscal year ending March 31, twice what the company had projected and the fourth consecutive annual loss. CFO Masaru Kato has cited poor demand, a strong yen and company taxes for Sony's turmoil. It has been reported that Sony will be shedding 10,000 jobs, or 6 per cent of its workforce, in an effort to turn around its fortunes.
Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai has said that under his "One Sony" plan, the company will play to its core strengths: digital imaging (ie cameras), gaming (PlayStation) and mobile, as well as turning around its TV arm (heavy LCD and plasma TV price erosion has taken a toll – it's now less a question of, 'Which brand?', more, 'How big?'). Its mobile, tablet and Vaio computers will all come under the same R&D and design umbrella and lead times between product inception and release will be tightened.
With customers walking away en masse from Sony towards Apple and its iPhones and Macs, the Sony Walkman – once the epitome of street credibility – has gone the way of Hanson. Perhaps the answer is less innovation, more old-school revival? You never know; even boy bands are making a comeback.
A Brief History of the Walkman via TIME
Sony sees massive $6.4 billion annual net loss via BGR
Sony shedding 10,000 jobs via Apple Insider
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