Sony Walkman
Sony Walkman - 30 this year

A new, irregular column where we remember ideas in music and technology whose time has come…and passed.

We’ve been wanting to do this column for quite some time. Some brilliant journalist at the BBC just gave us the excuse we needed – they asked a 13 year old to compare a Walkman with an iPod. The article is great (“It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape”) and well worth checking out. We wont repeat it here.

But how about the Walkman then? It does share one very important similarity with the iPod – it became so ubiquitous that the brand name became the product name. Just as people call most mp3 players ‘iPods‘, most portable cassette players are “Walkmans“, despite it being the name of Sony’s version of the ‘Personal Stereo’. The one from our youth was an Aiwa.

That BBC article uses a very old version of the Walkman. By the time it was in it’s last years, the Walkman looked pretty cool – and still does today. Check out the WM-EX170 as an example. And there were plenty of pretty colours as well, and lots of great designs.

A cool, later era Walkman
A cool, later era Walkman

The most groundbreaking thing about the Walkman was not the Walkman itself. Sony also pioneered the headphone buds, getting rid of the big ear enclosures. We have a pair of those things in our ears right now. These new lightweight, portable headphones were sold with the Walkmans (seems so obvious now), making them instantly accessible. So in 1979, Sony Japan released it’s masterpiece. Although it wasn’t an immediate hit, it caught on and 50 million were sold by Sony alone in ten years.

(The iPod has sold almost 200 million. Crazy.)

Suitcase record players and boom boxes aside, the Walkman was a truly portable music player. Later versions easily fit in a pocket, or at least a school bag. It opened up new possibilities for this format called the cassette. It was also sturdy – people could and did jog with Walkmans. Sure, it doesn’t fit the same number of songs, and other silly points. But how we used the Walkman is pretty similar to how we use the iPod today. Casual portable listening. And hey, our (Aiwa) Walkman could record. That durability didn’t last into the iteration – the Discman. That spinning CD just couldn’t handle bumps.

The Walkman continues as a brand. It’s Sony’s line of mp3 players. It’s one of the most popular mp3 players in the world after the iPod, iPhones, Zunes, Creative ZEN, Sandisk and about 10 others. It’s a good idea to reuse the name, but a Walkman will always be about cassettes for us.

A great history and museum of Walkmans can be found at Pocket Calculator – Well worth a read, if only to see how tough it was to sell the name ‘Walkman’ outside of Japan.

Walkmans at Wikipedia –