Business ideas that changed the world: The Walkman

Through technical innovation, smart marketing and good timing, this iconic business idea changed the way people listen to music forever...

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When: 1979
Where: Japan
Why: The Walkman was the first pocket-sized, low-cost stereo music player and the forerunner for the many innovations that have followed, such as the iPod
How: The need for a portable, personal, stereo audio cassette player was perceived by Sony Corporation. However, the brand was later forced to concede that an independent inventor was first to patent the product
Who: Sony’s Akio Morita and engineer Nobutoshi Kihara (and German-Brazilian inventor, Andreas Pavel)
Fact: An estimated 400 million Walkman units have been sold since its launch in 1979

The first Walkman (variously branded as the Stowaway, the Soundabout and the Freestyle before the current name stuck) featured a cassette player and the world’s first lightweight headphones. Apparently fearful that consumers would consider the Walkman antisocial, Sony built the first units with two headphone jacks so you could share music with a friend. The company later dropped this feature. Now, more than 35 years and an estimated 400 million units later, it’s not in the least unusual for people to be seen walking along the street with headphones on.

The Walkman’s universality over the last two decades of the 20th century was supported by outstanding advertising campaigns that targeted a young audience with the concepts of mobility, togetherness and the freedom provided by music.

The background

During the 1970s the audio industry was revelling in the success of the growing home stereo market. The arrival of the transistor, making a portable AM band receiver possible, had created a boom in pocket radios in the 1960s. The ‘tranny’ became ubiquitous among a generation for whom the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were essential companions. You could take your tranny to the beach, into the woods or on the bus and tune it to illegal radio stations that played great music that affronted your parents and their generation.

Battery-powered one-piece stereo systems grew in popularity during the late 1960s, the sound emanating through two or more loudspeakers. Then boom boxes and ghetto blasters became popular, and supported the capacity of the young to make a statement without being confined to sitting near a home stereo system – which could only impact on the immediate neighbourhood. Pocket-sized micro- and mini-cassette players were also successfully sold.

In 1949 the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation (TTEC), as the company was known then, had developed magnetic recording tape and in 1950 it went on to develop and market the first tape recorder in Japan. It produced the world’s first fully transistorised pocket radio in 1957. While the transistor was developed by Bell Labs and produced by Western Electric, it was Sony that first used it for a small pocket radio, creating a new market in the process and giving it the opportunity to claim the platform that started a worldwide youth craze. The radio’s success led to more firsts in transistorised products, such as an eight-inch television and a videotape recorder. But with a name like TTEC, the brand was never going to be cool, let alone become a global brand. In 1958 its founders, Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, had the foresight to change the name of the company to Sony. Based on the Latin word for sound, ‘Sony’ was also a name that would resonate with Japanese youth culture. Sonny-boy was the street name for a whiz kid at that time: Morita and Ibuka wanted to create a young and energetic image for their company.

Morita can further claim to have been the inspiration behind the development of the Walkman. As well as closely identifying with global hip culture, he was very keen on art and music, and was also something of an opera buff, and he wanted something that would enable him to listen to his favourite songs on the long-haul flights he frequently took. For that it would have to reproduce music every bit as well as a good-quality car stereo, yet remain portable, allowing the user to listen while doing something else. He observed how his children and their friends seemed to want to play their music day and night, and how people were increasingly taking bulky stereos to the beach and the park. Engineer Nobutoshi Kihara put together the original Walkman device in 1978. Early in 1979 Morita convened a meeting in which he held up a prototype derived from Sony’s Pressman portable tape recorder. He gave the engineering team less than four months to produce the model, saying: ‘This is the product that will satisfy those young people who want to listen to music all day. They’ll take it everywhere with them, and they won’t care about record functions. If we put a playback-only headphone stereo like this on the market, it’ll be a hit,’ he said.

Internal doubts were not silenced. As development neared the final stage the production manager, Kozo Ohsone, was concerned that if Walkman failed it could take his reputation with it. While he had already spent over $100,000 on the equipment to produce the injection-moulded cases, Ohsone did not want to risk over-production. So though he had been asked to produce 60,000 units, he decided to produce half that number. If sales took off, 30,000 more could be manufactured in short order.

The original metal-cased silver and blue Walkman TPS-L2, the world’s first low-cost portable stereo, was launched in Tokyo on 22 June 1979. Before the release of the Walkman, Sony seeded the market by distributing 100 cassette players to influential individuals, such as magazine editors and musicians. Journalists were treated to an unusual press conference. They were taken to the Yoyogi Park in Tokyo and given a Walkman to wear. The journalists listened to an explanation of the Walkman in stereo, while Sony staff members carried out product demonstrations. The tape invited the journalists to watch young people listening to a Walkman while bike riding, roller-skating and generally having a good time on the move.

After a rocky first month, Walkman sales took off and the original run of 30,000 had sold out – Ohsone had to ramp up production to meet the demand from local consumers and tourists. The following year, Walkman was introduced to the American market, and was marketed in the UK and other territories. At first, different names were used in different markets – Soundabout in the USA, Stowaway in the UK and Freestyle in Sweden. Morita initially resisted the name Walkman, though it was put forward for the same reasons the company had called itself Sony: it incorporated the idea of movement and neatly echoed Superman. On a business trip, Morita found that both the French and the people he met in the UK asked him when they would be able to get a ‘Walkman’. The name had preceded the product and, after the lightweight Walkman II was brought out in 1981, the alternative titles were dropped.

Miniaturisation followed, with the creation in 1983 of a Walkman roughly the size of a cassette case. The WM-20 featured one AA battery, head, pinch roller,and headphone jack arranged in a row, with the cassette placed horizontally alongside this structure. From this point forward, the Walkman was established as a modern necessity, easily carried in a handbag or pocket. In 1984 the Walkman Professional WM-D6C was introduced, with audio quality comparable to the best professional equipment. Thus Sony led the market, despite fierce competition, throughout the 1980s and most of the 1990s.

Commercial impact

The launch of the Walkman in 1979 changed forever the way people listened to music, because for the first time it was possible for people to travel with their favourite records and not disturb anybody else by playing them. In doing so, it kick-started an entire industry and prepared the market for the digitisation of music. When production of the cassette-based Walkman ceased in 2010 after 31 years it boasted incredible lifetime sales of more than 220 million. In all, Sony claims to have sold more than 400 million units bearing the Walkman name and for now continues to sell CD and mini-disc versions of the product.

Since the first shipment of the Walkman, almost every other company in the market has made its own portable cassette player. Nevertheless the Walkman’s effect on the market was so huge that even these competing models became referred to as ‘Walkmans’ in much the same way that vacuum cleaners are called ‘Hoovers’, regardless of their brand. The other names marketed – Toshiba’s Walky, Aiwa’s CassetteBoy and Panasonic’s MiJockey – were nothing like as memorable.

The Walkman was the product that put the name of Sony on the lips of an international clientele. An imaginative programme of advertising and marketing helped to convey the message that to be young, active, sporty, vigorous and cool, not to mention rebellious, you had to be seen with a Walkman. The success of Sony’s subsequent products, including the PlayStation and its digital camera range, have been boosted by this powerful association.

However, the brand also attached itself to psychology and sociology. ‘The Walkman Effect’ has been defined by some researchers as promoting isolation, self-absorption and even narcissism, while Sony has been at pains to argue the opposite, describing it as ‘the autonomy of the walking self’. Sony claims that the device ‘provides listeners with a personal soundtrack to their lives’, allowing its users to make even the dullest activities interesting and adding a bit of panache to their routines. As MP3 and mobile phone technology has proliferated, with Bluetooth headsets and earpieces permitting people to connect without wires, the debate around isolation has intensified – yet it is still defined as ‘The Walkman Effect’.

A controversial scandal

However innovative the Walkman concept as developed by Morita and Kihara – and notwithstanding that it was put together from intellectual property that resided within the corporation – the design was the subject of disputes for many years and Sony eventually had to concede that its innovative design was not, in fact, the first of its kind. A German-Brazilian inventor called Andreas Pavel had produced a portable stereo cassette player as early as 1972. In 1977 Pavel patented his Stereobelt in Italy, Germany, the USA, the UK – and Japan. Just a year after the Walkman was launched, in 1980, lawyers for Pavel and Sony started talks. As a result, Sony offered to pay Pavel limited royalties, covering the sale of certain models – but only in Germany.

This was not acceptable to Pavel, who wanted to be recognised as the inventor of the Walkman and to be paid royalties on sales in all the jurisdictions covered by his patents. Akio Morita, who had a strongly proprietorial interest in his company’s most successful product, was never going to agree to that, and Pavel pursued lawsuits that left him out of pocket to the tune of $3.6m and close to bankruptcy. He would not abandon his claim, however, and in 2003, after more than 20 years of court battles, Andreas Pavel was given several million dollars in an out-of-court settlement and was finally accepted as the Walkman’s inventor.

What does the Walkman look like today?

The cassette Walkman continued to be produced until 2010 but from the mid-1990s CDs started to replace cassettes. Manufacturers (including Sony, which produced its first Discman in 1984) migrated to personal disc players and, dealing a blow to car stereo manufacturers, phased out cassettes in favour of discs. The final nail was driven into the cassette’s coffin when Apple’s iPod and a host of MP3 players and mobile phones provided consumers with the digital storage capabilities to carry a lifetime of music on their person at all times, without having to carry cassettes or discs. With the cassette all but dead, Sony has worked hard to extend the Walkman brand to a series of subsequent digital music platforms. This started with the Discman (later CD Walkman), then the MiniDisc Walkman, and a number of digital music players aimed at capturing the market opened up by the iPod.

On 1 March 2005, Sony Ericsson, a joint-venture company established in 2001, introduced the W800i – the first of a series of Walkman phones, capable of 30 hours of music playback but six years later it released its last Walkman branded phone, the Sony Ericsson Live with Walkman.

Today, Sony offers a number of audio and video Walkman products but while the brand is still available, the Walkman will remain eternally associated in the public imagination with Sony’s original silver and blue cassette player.

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