Forty years ago on July 1, 1979, to be exact, music decided to go for a walk. Literally. That was the day when Sony launched its legendary Walkman music player and introduced the concept of really mobile music (when mobile meant the ability to move rather than a device) to the world, for which the closest thing to portable music was carrying a transistor, which only offered content selected by the broadcaster. But with the Walkman, carrying your music with you no longer meant carrying a portable stereo system (some of which were massive) but just a smallish gadget that could fit into your jacket pocket. Of course, in due course, the iPod came along and put an even more digital spin on portable music, but for many, the Sony Walkman remains the device that made music on the move a thing!
So as the Walkman turns forty, we decided that the best way to mark its birthday would be to look back at some lesser known facts about it:
1. Before the Walkman was…the TC-D5
The Walkman might have been the first real personal stereo cassette player, but that does not mean that there were no relatively compact cassette devices before it. One of these was the TC-D5, which was launched in 1978, and while being a bit on the bulky side, was the favorite of many Sony executives to carry along on their travels. One of these was Sony’s co-founder, which leads us to the next point.
2. Gimme gimme gimme…a player with no recording option that’s easy to carry!
The credit for pushing the invention of a portable music player is generally given to Sony’s co-founder, Masaru Ibuka. He used to listen to opera music on cassettes on long, trans-Atlantic flights. However, he used to find carrying a cassette player (that TC-D5) too inconvenient so he asked for something more portable with “play only” (no recording) option. And it had to be optimized for headphone use!
3. Blame the Press(man) for the name
Why was the Walkman called the Walkman? Well, there are many theories about how it captured portability and so on. But in all probability, it earned its name because its first prototype was built on a Sony mono recorder called the Pressman, which was a relatively portable recorder that was very popular in the media. The tape recorder division headed by Kozo Ohsone removed the recording function from the Pressman and added stereo sound. Ibuka loved the result. And another Sony co-founder, Akio Morita, encouraged commercial production of the device. In all probability, Walkman might indeed have been a play on Pressman.
4. Different names for different markets?
It was launched as the Walkman in Japan, with the first model being the TPS-L2, and it ran on two AA batteries. Initially, Sony tried to have different names for the device in different markets – the device was called the Stowaway in the UK, the Soundabout in the US and the Freestyle in Sweden and Australia. In due course, simplicity triumphed, and Sony settled on the Walkman name globally. They say that a key incident behind deciding on the name could have been an employee’s child asking Akio Morita for a “Walkman” during the Sony co-founder’s visit to Paris.
5. I got the Blues…and in color too!
The first Sony Walkman was on the colorful side. It had a blue and grey body, and a large yellow play button. A far cry from the predominantly grey shades that came to dominate it later. But in the beginning, the Walkman was very much a colorful affair. And more of this later!
6. Sell five thousand? Add a zero…and some more zeroes…and…
Priced at approximately 39000 Yen (USD 150 at that time), the Walkman was not expected to be a bestseller. Sony expected to sell about five thousand units a month. It had sold fifty thousand by the end of two months. A new star had emerged on the tech horizon, and voila, a new product category had been created. By 1989, ten years after the first Walkman, Sony had sold 50 million units!
6. There are sales…so let there be models
Well, one thing the Walkman did not lack in its early day was variety. As the brand grew popular, Sony kept coming out with different variants and models targeted at different segments. So at the end of the first ten years of the Walkman, Sony had released 170 models of the device.
7. Dear dictionary, we have a new word
So popular did the term “Walkman” become that it entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986. The problem was that it was considered by many to be synonymous with personal stereo players, rather than Sony’s specific model. The term had become generic, a territory which spells death for brands.
8. Dude, who really made the portable stereo?
Some people think that the Walkman was the first portable stereo player. Well, that is open to some debate. Brazilian German inventor Andreas Pavel claimed to have come up with the Stereobelt in 1977. Pavel and Sony were embroiled in a legal row over who invented the personal stereo.
9. The end comes…or does it?
Although the Walkman did very strongly in the eighties, by the nineties, it was facing challenges from CDs as music went digital. In October 2010, Sony announced that the cassette-based Walkman would stop in Japan, although it would continue (in China) for the US and other markets. However, that has not meant the end of Walkman as a brand. Even today, Sony continues to release personal audio products with Walkman branding.
10. And one more thing…
Sony had a huge admirer in Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. And he was particularly impressed with the Walkman. In fact, one of the names that he considered for the iMac, the computer that marked his return to Apple in 1997, was the MacMan. The inspiration for it was, of course, PacMan and the Walkman!