Anniversary of the Walkman

August 26th, 2009 Features, The West Australian

While space nuts spent July celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing, the world saw the passage of another milestone. Though not as culturally significant as mankind’s first visit to another world, the Walkman personal music player enjoyed its 30th birthday last month after touching the lives of countless Generation X and Yers.

If the holy grail of branding is for your product’s name to transcend the machine, only a select few like ‘Google’ or ‘Hoover’ achieve it, entering the lexicon as verbs. In the same way the word ‘Walkman’ has been shorthand for the very notion of a portable, personal music player since 1979. Since then it’s evolved through the technological epochs of the cassette, CD, minidisc, mobile phone and MP3.

Sony engineer Nobutoshi Kihara built the device at the request of Sony co-founder Akio Morita, who wanted something to listen to opera during flights between Japan and the US. Perhaps unwittingly, Kihara adhered to the first rule of marketing by building a tool to address a need, the same economics that created everything from the horseless carriage to YouTube. Like many world-beating advances, the Walkman also wasn’t without controversy during development (Google ‘stereobelt’).

We weren’t nearly as cynical of celebrity spruikers and underhanded product placement in those days, so when Cliff Richard appeared in the Wired for Sound video clip adorned with the cool new toy, it was the best advertising Sony could have dreamed of.

Throughout the eighties the Walkman became the ultimate statement of personal consumption to the newly switched-on kids of the era. Its appearance in hit movies cemented its cultural standing and the Walkman is old enough for such culture to be a museum piece itself. Websites like Boxwish, which catalogues and advises on buying the clothes and gadgets from movies, can help you track down the personal cassette player Michael J Fox used as Marty McFly in 1985’s Back to the Future. Ironically, the particular device in the movie was from Aiwa, but for competitors, it was too late. Any personal music device was (even mistakenly) termed a Walkman.

From the introduction of 1979s TPS-L2 right up to the 30th anniversary edition ‘wearable’ W series, the name has kept up with the times. Users of the W series can finally forget about tangled wires as it’s worn around the neck. The Walkman has weathered, featured and surpassed music player innovations like video, a hard drive-based library and the then-groundbreaking auto reverse, with which you could play both sides of a cassette without having to take it out and flip it over.

Today, the biggest fork in the road facing the company has been how to handle the iPod. 173 million have been sold since it appeared in October 2001, comparable numbers to the Walkman’s sales on a per-decade basis. When asked how the Apple juggernaut has affected the sales and influence of the brand, Sony’s response was — perhaps understandably — cagey.

“Commercially, it has been well documented that iPod has achieved significant sales. However, culturally Walkman has an iconic heritage and brand that many people have a strong affinity with. As the first portable music player, Walkman changed the way people listen to music and broke new ground for all following portable music players.”

But while such tacit PR-speak may hide concern for the Walkman’s future, its place in history is assured…


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