Originally posted November 2010.
Last week Sony announced the Walkman will be discontinued in Japan after the remaining units are sold. Sad times for, well, everyone who ever owned a portable cassette player. When I was first given a Walkman, I thought it was amazing that I could listen to copies of my Compact Discs on cassette whilst walking around school - a strange freedom, I still feel now wandering around the city listening to music. School is when I got really into music. I don’t remember when I got my first Walkman, but it was sometime around 1996, about a year after we got our first CD player at my parents’ house. It was a Panasonic ‘boom box’ style CD/cassette/radio and it ended up in my room in about a week. Sorry Mum.
Once I had the boom box and Walkman I never looked back; I started making copies and compilations from CD’s for free time at school/college. I fell in love with music sat in school surrounded by other Walkman owners (some had Alba’s, but I didn’t judge ;)), swapping cassettes and flicking through Kerrang, Melody Maker and NME, discussing music. Only a handful of friends had home computers with Internet access, so cassettes and our portable cassette players were our MySpace, SoundCloud, iPod, iPhones, Facebook all rolled into one - we exchanged tapes, and we talked. But having a Walkman and a group of friends each with their own device meant music came out of our homes and became social, a few years before most of us got to gigs and concerts. The biggest evolution in portable music isn’t the iPod or even the MP3, it’s the Walkman. The Walkman is the device that took music from our home and onto millions of streets around the world - it changed listening habits forever, which paved the way for the iPod.
Although the cassette Walkman is now gone (in Japan at least) Sony has moved with the times with the release of the DiscMan in 1984, MiniDisc in the early 1990’s and the “Walkman that didn’t originally support MP3, just WMA” MP3 Walkman in the 2000’s. Everything was going fine, until Apple released the iPod in 2001. I didn’t ever stop considering the cassettes a contender (I hated portable CD players, because they skipped too much) until MP3 players took off. I mean, although I used MiniDiscs and enjoyed them as they could store much more music than a cassette, I didn’t fall in love the way I did with cassettes. But When I got my first iPod, I knew I’d never look back. The iPod was a game-changer. It took the idea of portable music from the 70’s and made it cooler than it ever had been before. Despite there being more affordable mp3 players, the iPod (in all variations) outsells it’s competitors because basically, it’s fashionable - much like the Walkman was when I was in college and school. Everyone had a tape player, unless they had a Walkman. The term iPod is often used to describe an MP3 Player, much like Hoover - vaccuum, Kleenex - tissue and Walkman - tape player have been for many years.
What about new versions of the Walkman?
If would be nice if Sony could get back to it’s glory days but it hasn’t really made any attractive devices for a number of years. One or two early digital audio player from Sony looked okay, but the MiniDisc and Net Walkman releases have been quite ugly and had ridiculous names like MZ-R91. The iPod is simply an iPod with the option of how much space you want. Much simpler for my Dad if he wants to buy a device, for example. While in 2001 Sony was trying to sell us the MZ-N1 MiniDisc player with it’s NetMD, BassBoost, Groove, Long Play, LP2 and LP4, Apple released an iPod which would store and play 200 albums and look really cool. There was only going to be one winner. RIP cassette Walkman, CD Walkman, MD Walkman, MP3 Walkman.
Unless Sony can get back the coolness of their portable audio devices from last century, it’s (portable audio) days are numbered. Even if Sony managed to get it’s next series of digital Walkman to challenge the iPod, I still think Apple has the market sewn up - iTunes Store, App Store, compatible iPhones and iPads all contribute to the iPod experience and I can’t see (sadly) how Sony could come back from it. RIP Walkman, period.