The Walkman bows out

The Walkman bows out

The term iPod generation has come to stand for young people who are somewhat inward-looking, and insular to the world around them. They express this attitude to the outside world by locking themselves away behind a pair of shiny white earphones. That term is unfair to the pioneering mobile entertainment device of the last 30 years. It should be, in fact, called the Walkman generation

In July 1979, Sony launched a portable audio cassette player under the brand name Walkman. Initially, the device was dismissed in both the local Japanese and international press. Who would want to roam around with big headphones around their head?

Since then, Sony has sold over 220 million Walkman devices. Competitors and imitators making rip-offs have no doubt sold many million more. And now Sony has announced that it will not make any more cassette versions of the device.

When the Walkman was launched, it was the first time consumers had an entertainment platform that was portable and, most importantly, personal. They were no longer subject to the choice of music determined by radio or TV stations. Nor did they have to think about the people around them. Armed with headphones and a tape of music they put together, they could shamelessly personalize the experience.

Since then, researchers have used it to explain changing social, consumer and technology trends.

While selling the Walkman, Sony established many of the precepts of modern technology branding and marketing. Like the iPhone, for instance, the Walkman also convinced consumers that a mass-produced device could be intensely personal. And that a gadget can also be an indicator of social situation and choice. For the music industry the Walkman perhaps accelerated the threat of piracy. Pirates were mixing and recording tapes well before they were swapping MP3 files.

The onus of being a generation’s talisman has, however, passed on. The market is dominated by Apple. The iPod, incidentally, celebrated its ninth birthday almost to the day Sony retired the tape Walkman. Apple has sold as many iPods in nine years as Sony sold Walkmans in 30. But the Walkman’s legacy is stronger than ever. The tape has ended. But the music plays on.

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