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How Sony's Walkman Changed the World

Before CDs and MP3s, this little machine made music portable

Andreas Pavel was getting tired of being laughed at. It was 1977, and the German-born inventor had made appointments at all of the major electronics companies—Yamaha, Grundig, ITT, etc.—and each had sent him packing. Pavel was trying to interest them in a device he'd invented called the "Stereobelt," a portable cassette player equipped with headphones. It was a novel invention, but the big brands were having none of it.

"They all said they didn't think people would be so crazy as to run around with headphones," Pavel told The New York Times in a 2005 interview. 

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Sony Corp. co-founder Masaru Ibuka—who liked to listen to music during his frequent business trips—was tired of lugging his unwieldy TC-D5 cassette deck around, and asked his designers to produce something smaller. They came back with the headphone-equipped TPS-L2, which they dutifully brought to chairman Akio Morita.

"Try this," Ibuka said. "Don't you think a stereo cassette player that you can listen to while walking around is a good idea?"

On July 1, 1979, the 14-ounce device hit the market, priced at $150. Sony called it the Soundabout, then changed the name to the Walkman, hoping the 30,000 it had made would sell. They did. In fact, consumers wound up buying 400 million of them. Today, with half of smartphone owners using their devices to listen to music, it's easy to forget how radically the Walkman changed things. "Mobility—the idea that you could take music with you—was huge," said Americus Reed, who teaches marketing at Wharton. "It was one of the early moments where music consumption became outward-speaking."

Groundbreaking as it was, however, the Walkman would also become one of branding's cautionary tales. Sony initially kept apace with the changes in technology, introducing its CD-playing Discman D-20 in 1987. But when the era of MP3 arrived, Sony wasn't hip to the groove. The MP3 Walkman arrived in 2004, but its high price ($400) and Sony's insistence on using its Atrac MiniDisc format alienated many consumers—who were all too happy to defect to Apple's iPod after it hit the market in 2001. "Sony was not defending its space as it should have been," Reed said. "One of the brilliant things that Apple did—and that Sony had done—was to create a category."

Today, that category still exists, though the Walkman's share of it has dwindled to single digits. Meanwhile, in 2003, after 24 years of legal battles, Sony settled with Andreas Pavel. The inventor received several million euros for his long-ago radical idea, which he called "add[ing] a soundtrack to real life." 

 

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