Walkman is a brand and also the pioneer of portable media players manufactured by Sony. The first Walkman was released in 1979 as a portable cassette player, which allowed everyone to listen to their favorite music playlist on the go. The first prototype was designed from a modified Sony Pressman, which happens to be the base of the Walkman. But this is not the full story for the Walkman origins. Sony’s official website states that their Honorary Chairman Ibuka Masaru asked for a customized Walkman so that he could listen to the music he liked in airplanes on business trips. Yasuo Kuroki led the development team for the Walkman manufacturing and had been recognized as Mr. Walkman. He wrote a book about the journey of the Walkman and gave the following statement- “It’s a fact that there was no clearly directed plan to make and sell the Walkman. Young engineers created it just to see if it was possible, and it was never on the product development list for the tape recorder division. This lack of planning is what makes the Walkman story so fascinating.”
The world’s first low-cost personal stereo was this metal-cased blue-and-silver Walkman TPS-L2, which went on sale in Japan on the first of July, 1979. Sony estimated that they would sell about 5000 units a month, but later the number reached more than 30000 in the first 2 months, which was quite surprising! Sony released the Walkman by following a series of international releases, such as Soundabout in the United States, Freestyle in Australia & Sweden, and Stowaway in the UK. Eventually, Walkman became a global outreach and Sony decided to use the name worldwide in the early 1980s.
However, in 1981, Sony released their second Walkman model, the WM-2, which got a significant upgrade by following a smaller form factor compared to the previous TPS-L2. The first Dolby Noise-Reduction enabled Walkman appeared in 1982 and later, the first ultra-compact ‘Cassette-size’ Walkman, the WM-20, was introduced in 1983, with a telescopic case. And the first model with Autoreverse was released in 1984. From then, portable stereo got more meaningful among the consumers, as it was very easy to carry the Walkman in bags or even pockets.
In October 1985, the WM-101 was the first in its class with a ‘Gum stick’ rechargeable battery and Sony presented the first model outfitted with remote control as well as one with a solar battery. And after almost a decade of launch, Sony held a 50% market share in the United States of America and 46% in Japan. There have also been two of the 10th Anniversary limited editions made of brass and plated in Sterling Silver, the 701S, and the 701T, released in Japan, 1989. Later, a 15th Anniversary model was released on the 1st of July, 1994 with vertical loading and a 20th Anniversary model, also on the 1st July, 1999 with a prestige model.
Around 1989, 10 years after the release of the first model, over a hundred million Walkmans had been sold globally. And by 1999, the number of sold Walkman reached a hundred and 86 million, which was quite impressive! Things started to change for the Walkman when the world of stereo music got introduced with Compact Disc players, which led to the decline of the famous ‘Cassette Walkman’ and was discontinued from Japan in 2010. Though the last cassette-based model available in the US was released in 2004.
The marketing of the Walkman introduced the idea of ‘Japanese-ness’ into global culture. But the most important component for the advertisement of Walkman was simply, the ‘Personalization of playlist’. Because at that time, having the opportunity to customize your songs was absolutely new and also a revolutionary move in music consumption. In fact, the ability to play one’s personal choice of music and listen from one’s own comfort zone was a huge selling point of the Walkman, especially among teenagers who hugely played a great role in the journey of Walkman’s success.
Culturally, Walkman had a significant effect that made it pervasive among the people. According to Time, “The Walkman’s unprecedented combination of portability and privacy made it the ideal product for thousands of consumers looking for a compact portable stereo that they could take with them anywhere”. And ‘The Verge’ stated that, “The world changed on the day the Walkman was released”, which is an absolute truth!
However, the Walkman had already been an icon in the 80s culture and its popularity got over a new height when the word ‘Walkman’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. Furthermore, people stated that their exercise rate increased 30% after they got a Walkman for themselves, which also indicates a great level of success for the brand. And later in 2019, a large statue of a Sports Walkman FM was constructed in the Ginza district of Tokyo to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Walkman. The Walkman not only changed people’s relationship to music but also technology; because having a personalized nature, users got themselves into the music of their own choice rather than listening through a radio. So before the idea of ‘a personal computer’, or ‘a mobile phone’ there was the existence of a personal music device. Eventually, headphones started to be worn in public, which in fact, caused safety controversies in the US, leading to a ban of the Walkman to be worn in public due to pedestrian accidents.
In the year 1989, a portable recorder named Video8 marketed as ‘Video Walkman’, extending the brand name. The next year, Sony released another portable device named Digital Audio Tape or DAT, marketed as DAT Walkman, which was extended further in 1992 for MiniDisc players with the ‘MD Walkman’ brand. From 1997, the Discman range of portable CD players started to get rebranded as ‘CD Walkman’. On 21st December 1999, Sony released their first Digital Audio Players, called ‘Network Walkman’, including the players under VAIO. The first audio player in this lineup that used a memory stick as the storage medium was branded as ‘MS Walkman’. In 2000, the Walkman brand was unified and rebranded the logo with a small new icon ‘W.’ After that, we saw Walkman-branded mobile phones which were manufactured by the joint venture of the Sony Ericsson company.
It’s a cakewalk to understand that things had become already so hard for Sony to compete with the new technology, as the prophecy of cassette players got almost vulnerable because of the rise of the Digital audio player market. Then again, the iPod became a great success by then and significantly hindered Walkman sales internationally. Even though Walkman DAP’s market share had been better domestically, it outsold iPod only in 2005 and the 2009-10 period. But nevertheless, people will eventually adapt to better technology and that is the reason why iPod got more popularity among the young generation. However, the story of Walkman is a good old memory for millions of people. Even these days, a lot of us cherish having the old Walkman inside our pocket. Although we are surrounded by so many audio devices in our life, there’s one sweet little spot for the Walkman, which knows no bounds.