The Ode: Sony Walkman (1979 – 2010)

The cassette player's demise in the face of evolving technology was inevitable, but its branding lives on in the iPod and the very idea of music-on-the-go.

The first Sony Walkman, the TPS-L2, entered the marketplace on July 1, 1979, in Japan. Sony had designed a portable tape player before, but it was very heavy, and at $1,000 per unit, there was virtually no demand.

Determined that personal cassette players had potential, Sony chairman Akio Morita requested that a new player be designed, with cheaper components and a small, stylish enclosure. With that, the Walkman was born — priced to sell at just $200.

Before the release, Sony puzzled over the name of their new device. “Walkman” was a play on it’s predecessor, the “Pressman,” but Sony thought the name sounded too much like a direct Japanese-to-English translation, so it tried different names in different marketplaces. The Stowaway, the Soundabout, and the Freestyle were all tried, but ultimately the Walkman was the catchiest, and it became the identity of the brand.

Early product reviews were unfavourable. Eight out of 10 Sony dealers were convinced that a cassette player without a recording mechanism had no real future. Fortunately, Sony had sent a number of samples out to celebrities and magazines, which helped bolster the brand’s popularity. Within a month, the device had sold out in Japan and was successful in its North American and European launches, too.

When it first launched, Sony was fearful that consumers would see the personal player as promoting antisocial behaviour. To address that concern, the first Walkman came with two headphone jacks so that music could be shared. A small microphone was also built in, and when a user talked into it, his companion would hear his voice above the music.

Sony’s obsession with making popular devices smaller helped perpetuate Japan’s reputation for producing technology in miniature. The year before it debuted the Walkman, the company introduced the world’s smallest tape recorder for standard cassettes, the TCM-600, and in 1961 Sony produced the world’s smallest and lightest videotape recorder (model PV-1000). So, it’s no surprise that the focus of the second Walkman, the WM-2 was small size. It was scarcely bigger than the tape.

But along with highlighting the compact design, Sony also pioneered the idea of portable music as a sign of youth. Teenagers were often the target demographic in advertisements for the Walkman, and Sony hoped that the device would become associated with fitness, youth and mobility. Walkmans came in a variety of bright colours, and many models were labelled “Sports.” A Walkman with a recording feature did eventually hit the market in 1982, but the decline of the Walkman personal stereo was close at hand — Sony’s compact disc player, the Discman, was introduced in 1984. As CDs became more popular, cassettes naturally began to disappear. As a testament to the strength of the brand, though, Sony began to market other products with the name “Walkman,” abandoning the Discman name altogether. The name still lives on in Walkman MP3 Players and Walkman Phones from Sony Ericsson, but its youth-in-motion branding has been usurped by the more dynamic and aggressive iPod from Apple.

In the 31 years since the Walkman was introduced, it has sold about 220 million units and changed the way people interact with their music — it became such an important part of popular culture that it even earned a spot in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986. But in October 2010, Sony announced it would stop making Walkman cassette players in the device’s home country of Japan. China will continue to produce a few, and they can be purchased online for $30.