Thursday, 24 March 2011

Media Essay - Sony Walkman 1979

Designed in 1979 in Japan and released a year later in Britain, the first Sony Walkman paved the way for portable music devices unlike anything the world had seen before, completely changing the way consumers listened to their music.

The Walkman (which admittedly appears fairly bulky in the modern world) featured a cassette player and also supported the world's first lightweight headphones. It became known as the first personal tape player that was small enough to be carried around. When Sony's creation hit the market, it reinvented the concept of 'personal electronics', sparking technological developments that have ultimately led to the arrival of even more portable and complex music players we see today. This evolution suggests technological determinism is present within the industry, shaping how these products grow according to society’s ever-changing demands.

Personal tape players were available at the time, yet such products were too expensive for the average consumer, with some reaching up to $1,000. Sony took the personal tape player and re-marketed it with an affordable price tag ($200) and a friendly brand image, attempting to draw associations between the portable music player, fitness and youth. Technological determinism and the Walkman gave society a new perspective on staying active, which undoubtedly helped the product sell. The term 'Walkman' eventually became synonymous with the personal cassette; a true sign of its influence on the industry.

Sony's initial attempts to gain interest in their product within its country of origin proved ineffective. It was not until the company decided to ship the product to press, publications and Japanese celebrities that demand grew. Press voiced doubt over some of the devices functions. Questions were raised as to whether the public would be willing to purchase a device devoid of a record function. Their doubts were soon quashed, as a month after the device reached stores it had sold out.

As demand for the product grew, Sony broadened its horizons and prepared to launch the Walkman in Europe and North America. According to statistics, by 1995 the total number of Walkmans sold had exceeded 150 million. These were not purely derived from the 1979 version of the product, but the figures clearly proved both the original Walkman and its successors had global appeal.

Remarkably, Sony only stopped producing cassette Walkmans in Japan in 2010 (although it continues to sell in Europe and America) which suggests the 'retro', nostalgic feel of the product allows it to sell in a modern market. Media experts point out that other portable music devices such as the iPod (which is ever-evolving and particularly feature heavy) have led to the downfall of Sony's Walkman. The history of portable music players would suggest that the iPod may not have existed without Sony's initial push to bring music mobility to the masses.

It is here that the theory of technological determinism is somewhat relevant. The theory states that constant product development gives rise to new forms of media devices and uses for these devices. The evolution of technology saw Sony's competitors taking their concept and adding new features to their own product to put it in favour of Sony's. It was ultimately Sony who began the portable music players journey to where it is today.

BBC (2008). 'I Love 1979'. [Online]. Available from:

About (1997). 'The History of the Sony Walkman'. [Online]. Available from: http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventions/a/Walkman.htm

LowEndMac (2006). 'The Story Behind the Sony Walkman'. [Online]. Available from: http://lowendmac.com/orchard/06/sony-walkman-origin.html

CBOnline (2010). 'The Ode: Sony Walkman'. [Online]. Available from: http://www.canadianbusiness.com/after_hours/opinions/article.jsp?content=20101122_10018_10018

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