The story behind the Sony Walkman
|Neal Ulevich / Associated Press
With Sony’s announcement that it would discontinue sales of the cassette Walkman in Japan, it marked the end of its 31 year-old iconic product. What the iPod is today in terms or being the innovative market leader, Sony’s Walkman was the same 30 years earlier. Both products were innovative not because they were first movers or because they employed new technology; rather they were innovative because they opened up new markets where none existed before (and they made Sony and Apple millions of dollars in the process).
Here’s what Time Magazine had to say about the Walkman on the 30th anniversary of its introduction:
The Walkman wasn't a giant leap forward in engineering: magnetic cassette technology had been around since 1963, when the Netherlands-based electronics firm Philips first created it for use by secretaries and journalists. Sony, who by that point had become experts in bringing well-designed, miniaturized electronics to market (they debuted their first transistor radio in 1955), made a series of moderately successful portable cassette recorders. But the introduction of pre-recorded music tapes in the late 1960s opened a whole new market. People still chose to listen to vinyl records over cassettes at home, but the compact size of tapes made them more conducive to car stereos and mobility than vinyl or 8-tracks. On July 1, 1979, Sony Corp. introduced the Sony Walkman TPS-L2, a 14 ounce, blue-and-silver, portable cassette player with chunky buttons, headphones and a leather case. It even had a second earphone jack so that two people could listen in at once. Masaru Ibuka, Sony's co-founder, traveled often for business and would find himself lugging Sony's bulky TC-D5 cassette recorder around to listen to music. He asked Norio Ohga, then Executive Deputy President, to design a playback-only stereo version, optimized for use with headphones. Ibuka brought the result — a compact, high-quality music player — to Chairman Akio Morita and reportedly said, "Try this. Don't you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?"
All the device needed now was a name. Originally the Walkman was introduced in the U.S. as the "Sound-About" and in the UK as the "Stowaway," but coming up with new, uncopyrighted names in every country it was marketed in proved costly; Sony eventually decided on "Walkman" as a play on the Sony Pressman, a mono cassette recorder the first Walkman prototype was based on. First released in Japan, it was a massive hit: while Sony predicted it would only sell about 5,000 units a month, the Walkman sold upwards of 50,000 in the first two months. Sony wasn't the first company to introduce portable audio: the first-ever portable transistor radio, the index card-sized Regency TR-1, debuted in 1954. But the Walkman's unprecedented combination of portability (it ran on two AA batteries) and privacy (it featured a headphone jack but no external speaker) made it the ideal product for thousands of consumers looking for a compact portable stereo that they could take with them anywhere. The TPS-L2 was introduced in the U.S. in June 1980.
The 1980s could well have been the Walkman decade. The popularity of Sony's device — and those by brands like Aiwa, Panasonic and Toshiba who followed in Sony's lead — helped the cassette tape outsell vinyl records for the first time in 1983. By 1986 the word "Walkman" had entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Its launch coincided with the birth of the aerobics craze, and millions used the Walkman to make their workouts more entertaining. Between 1987 and 1997 — the height of the Walkman's popularity — the number of people who said they walked for exercise increased by 30%.
Another interesting fact about Sony’s successful marketing of their new Walkman was that Sony used an early ‘influencer’ strategy focusing on celebrities and people in the music industry. Sony sent Walkmans to Japanese recording artists, TV and movie stars free of charge and through their influence, the product's popularity quickly spread to the masses. Sony also used imagery that gave the feelings of fun, youth and most importantly, freedom as they targeted younger people and active folks
Here’s the takeaway: Sony’s introduction of the first Walkman in 1979 was innovative because they changed the music-listening habits of millions of people worldwide and became the industry leader making hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.