The Sony Walkman (1979-2010)

Born into a technology world dominated by brands from Europe and the West, the Walkman could scarcely dream of the rollercoaster life of fame, stardom and eventual obsolescence that awaited it. The Walkman, who has died today after a long battle with the digital music revolution, aged 31, was single-handedly responsible both for a world wide change in listening habits and the cultural association of Japan with miniaturization and high technology. It enjoyed a staggeringly long career for a single known gadget and for a great part of its life became the by-word itself of all other devices of its type regardless of what brand they were.

Of a troubled parentage that would eventually be disputed, the Walkman was created, loved and nurtured after the Sony audio-division's Nobutoshi Kihara came up with a way for company chairman Akio Morita to listen to operas on his long and frequent trans-Pacific flights. Marketed initially in the US as the Soundabout, the UK as the Stowaway and the Freestlye in Sweden; the first Walkman was made from an earlier prototype device known as the Sony Pressman - an audio cassette recorder - after Kihara replaced the recording circuits and speaker with a stereo amp.

The blue and silver Sony Walkman TPS-L2 was the very first to take to the shelves on 1 July 1979. It was a low cost portable stereo with a second headphone jack, so that a friend could listen, and a built-in mic input called the hotline which allowed you to talk to your listener buddy through the headphone speakers.

The Walkman - the official plural of which was and will always be "Walkman Personal Stereos" rather than Walkmen or Walkmans - was marketed much in the same way as the iPods are today. Adverts showed young hipster Walk-men and Walk-women and symbolised that same sense of freedom, portability and individual expression that Apple captures. It caused a revolution creating, for the first time, a way for people to carry their music with them, and it sold in huge numbers. It was top of Christmas shopping lists throughout the 1980s and quickly found its way into common parlance.

The Walkman was hurriedly aped by other brands calling theirs the Walky or the CassetteBoy, in an almost identical way to which we see the prefix "i" used in many MP3 players on the market. However, by this time, Sony had helped its child grow and created the Walkman II which phased out the second headphone jack and hotline and other hit models including the highly regarded Walkman Professional WM-D6C which came with top of the line recording capabilities and featured LED meters and manual control over levels a few years later.

Each 5 year anniversary saw the launch of yet another special edition with the pinnacle for many being the 1989 Walkman WM-DD9 with its purest, audiophile ethos. There were no gimmicks just carefully thought out specs including gold connectors, a 2mm thick aluminium body, a tape head that covered the full audible frequency spectrum and two independent tape motors that ensured accurate playback speed on both sides regardless of whether Auto Reverse was in use or not.

Although far from the end of its life, the WM-DD9 was for many reasons the high point regardless of the fact that there were astounding Walkman sales for many years to come. It was the arrival of the early 90s and with it digital formats like the CD, the DAT and the MiniDisc that spelled the beginning of the decline. Sony tried to evolve the name of its new products, but the Discman moniker never quite stuck, with Walkman chosen to carry on despite the change medium. All the same, sales of Walkman cassette players, Walkman CD players and even Walkman MiniDisc machines were strong through the decade but it was in 1999 when the evolution of portable music went one step too far for the Walkman and its ill-health and subsequent wane became public.

Sony was quick to recognise the importance of music files kept on the computer and the Internet as a tool to download more, and so created the first Networked Walkman devices - a name which was always kept in the NW opener of each of the Walkman model names. Digital file playback life began for the Walkman with the MagicGate memory sticks as storage on the NW-MS7 -  itself later updated as the NW-MS7OD and NW-MS7OD, the former of which was, at the time, the smallest such player in the world.

But while the Walkman was still ahead of Apple in terms of invention, there were fundamental problems which kept it from mass uptake. The first was that storage was highly limited - less than 500MB. The second was that these players supported Sony's proprietary ATRAC file format only rather than MP3s, and the third was the buggy SonicStage desktop software which had to be used to convert music. It was a mistake that cost the Walkman dear and all the more physically appealing iPod needed to take over with its MP3 support, superior computer application and offering of 15GB of space for the same price.

Spotting the mistake and facing huge losses, Sony turned to HDD players with the Walkman NW-HD1 which now worked with MP3s in 2004, but neither it nor the NW-HD3 or HD5 that followed it where particularly well received. The market had already been lost. In the mean time, the Walkman was to receive some news that it could never have dreamt of. Its parents were not Morita and Kihara as it had believed all its life. The Walkman had, in fact, been the child of German/Brazilian inventor, Andreas Pavel and originally called the Stereobelt in 1972. Although the custody battle was fierce, Sony finally admitted defeat and agreed to both recognise the Walkman's genetic parentage as well as offer Pavel a settlement thought to be in the region of $10m plus later royalties with the proviso that no further law suits could be brought.

The Walkman soldiered on despite obvious signs of illness through the first decade of the 21st century, and ultimately the last of its life. All too late, the flash-based NW-A series arrived in 2007, followed by the D-series - which finally ditched SonicStage. Then there was the USB centric E-series, the S-series with active noise control and the sports based W-series in an attempt to corner the sales of a mini-market which Apple had not already monopolised. Finally, there were the video based players culminating in the Wi-Fi connected X-series machines with YouTube and Slacker apps and OLED screens, but they were no match of the iPod touch already too routed both in the public consciousness as well as in third party developer support.

The one swan song for the Walkman though was in 2005 when Sony Ericsson was given permission to use the brand on its mid-range mobile phones where it garnered great support and popularity on music-centric handsets, bringing features like playlists and audio equalisation to otherwise ordinary devices. Over 26 million of them were sold from the W800 to W995.

In a time of third party operating systems, smartphones and ecosystems with their own and unlimited ways of bringing in music and video to mobile users, finally the Walkman has passed on beyond modern need, but never beyond memory.

The Walkman is survived by its family - the PS3, the Blu-ray, Bravia, CyberShot, Vaio and Xperia who is too sick to attend the funeral. The memorial service takes place all over the world in the hearts of those who were alive in the 80s and early 90s and in the heritage of all music lovers to come.



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