The invention: Inexpensive portable device for listening to stereo cassettes that was the most successful audio product of the 1980′s and the forerunner of other portable electronic devices.
The people behind the invention:
Masaru Ibuka (1908-1997), a Japanese engineer who cofounded Sony
Akio Morita (1921-1999), a Japanese physicist and engineer,
cofounder of Sony Norio Ohga (1930- ), a Japanese opera singer and
businessman who ran Sony’s tape recorder division before
becoming president of the company in 1982
Convergence Of Two Technologies
The Sony Walkman was the result of the convergence of two technologies: the transistor, which enabled miniaturization of electronic components, and the compact cassette, a worldwide standard for magnetic recording tape. As the smallest tape player devised, the Walkman was based on a systems approach that made use of advances in several unrelated areas, including improved loudspeaker design and reduced battery size. The Sony company brought them together in an innovative product that found a mass market in a remarkably short time.
Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering, which became Sony, was one of many small entrepreneurial companies that made audio products in the years following World War II. It was formed in the ruins of Tokyo, Japan, in 1946, and got its start manufacturing components for inexpensive radios and record players. They were the ideal products for a company with some expertise in electrical engineering and a limited manufacturing capability.
Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka formed Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering to make a variety of electrical testing devices and instruments, but their real interests were in sound, and they decided to concentrate on audio products. They introduced a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1946. Its success ensured that the company would remain in the audio field. The trade name of the magnetic tape they manufactured was “Soni,” this was the origin of the company’s new name, adopted in 1957. The 1953 acquisition of a license to use Bell Laboratories’ transistor technology was a turning point in the fortunes of Sony, for it led the company to the highly popular transistor radio and started it along the path to reducing the size of consumer products. In the 1960′s, Sony led the way to smaller and cheaper radios, tape recorders, and television sets, all using transistors instead of vacuum tubes.
The Consumer Market
The original marketing strategy for manufacturers of mechanical entertainment devices had been to put one into every home. This was the goal for Edison’s phonograph, the player piano, the Victrola, and the radio receiver. Sony and other Japanese manufacturers found out that if a product were small enough and cheap enough, two or three might be purchased for home use, or even for outdoor use. This was the marketing lesson of the transistor radio.
The unparalleled sales of transistor radios indicated that consumer durables intended for entertainment were not exclusively used in the home. The appeal of the transistor radio was that it made entertainment portable. Sony applied this concept to televisions and tape recorders, developing small portable units powered by batteries. Sony was first to produce a “personal” television set, with a five-inch screen. To the surprise of many manufacturers who said there would never be a market for such a novelty item, it sold well.
It was impossible to reduce tape recorders to the size of transistor radios because of the problems of handling very small reels of tape and the high power required to turn them. Portable tape recorders required several large flashlight batteries. Although tape had the advantage of recording capability, it could not challenge the popularity of the microgroove 45 revolution-per-minute (rpm) disc because the tape player was much more difficult to operate. In the 1960′s, several types of tape cartridge were introduced to overcome this problem, including the eight-track tape cartridge and the Philips compact cassette. Sony and Matsushita were two of the leading Japanese manufacturers that quickly incorporated the compact cassette into their audio products, producing the first cassette players available in the United States.
The portable cassette players of the 1960′s and 1970′s were based on the transistor radio concept: small loudspeaker, transistorized amplifier, and flashlight batteries all enclosed in a plastic case. The size of transistorized components was being reduced constantly, and new types of batteries, notably the nickel cadmium combination, offered higher power output in smaller sizes. The problem of reducing the size of the loudspeaker without serious deterioration of sound quality blocked the path to very small cassette players. Sony’s engineers solved the problem with a very small loudspeaker device using plastic diaphragms and new, lighter materials for the magnets. These devices were incorporated into tiny stereo headphones that set new standards of fidelity.
The first “walkman” was made by Sony engineers for the personal use of Masaru Ibuka. He wanted to be able to listen to high-fidelity recorded sound wherever he went, and the tiny player was small enough to fit inside a pocket. Sony was experienced in reducing the size of machines. At the same time the walkman was being made up, Sony engineers were struggling to produce a video recording cassette that was also small enough to fit into Ibuka’s pocket.
Although the portable stereo was part of a long line of successful miniaturized consumer products, it was not immediately recognized as a commercial technology. There were already plenty of cassette players in home units, in automobiles, and in portable players. Marketing experts questioned the need for a tiny version. The board of directors of Sony had to be convinced by Morita that the new product had commercial potential. The Sony Soundabout portable cassette player was introduced to the market in 1979.
The Soundabout was initially treated as a novelty in the audio equipment industry. At a price of $200, it could not be considered as a product for the mass market. Although it sold well in Japan, where people were used to listening to music on headphones, sales in the United States were not encouraging. Sony’s engineers, working under the direction of Kozo Ohsone, reduced the size and cost of the machine. In 1981, the Walkman II was introduced. It was 25 percent smaller than the original version and had 50 percent fewer moving parts. Its price was considerably lower and continued to fall.
The Walkman opened a huge market for audio equipment that nobody knew existed. Sony had again confounded the marketing experts who doubted the appeal of a new consumer electronics product. It took about two years for Sony’s Japanese competitors, including Matsushita, Toshiba, and Aiwa, to bring out portable personal stereos. Such was the popularity of the device that any miniature cassette player was called a “walkman,” irrespective of the manufacturer. Sony kept ahead of the competition by constant innovation: Dolby noise reduction circuits were added in 1982, and a rechargeable battery feature was introduced in 1985. The machine became smaller, until it was barely larger than the audio cassette it played.
Sony developed a whole line of personal stereos. Waterproofed Walkmans were marketed to customers who wanted musical accompaniment to water sports. There were special models for tennis players and joggers. The line grew to encompass about forty different types of portable cassette players, priced from about $30 to $500 for a high-fidelity model.
In the ten years following the introduction of the Walkman, Sony sold fifty million units, including twenty-five million in the United States. Its competitors sold millions more. They were manufactured all over the Far East and came in a broad range of sizes and prices, with the cheapest models about $20. Increased competition in the portable tape player market continually forced down prices. Sony had to respond to the huge numbers of cheap copies by redesigning the Walkman to bring down its cost and by automating its production. The playing mechanism became part of the integrated circuit that provided amplification, allowing manufacturing as one unit.
The Walkman did more than revive sales of audio equipment in the sagging market of the late 1970′s. It stimulated demand for cassette tapes and helped make the compact cassette the worldwide standard for magnetic tape. At the time the Walkman was introduced, the major form of prerecorded sound was the vinyl micro-
Nicknamed “genius inventor” in college, Masaru Ibuka developed into a visionary corporate leader and business philosopher. Born in Nikko City, Japan, in 1908, he took a degree in engineering from Waseda University in 1933 and went to work at Photo-Chemical Laboratory, which developed movie film. Changing to naval research during World War II, he met Akio Morita, another engineer. After the war they opened an electronics shop together, calling it the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, and began experimenting with tape recorders.
Their first model was a modest success, and the business grew under Ibuka, who was president and later chairman He thought up a new, less daunting name for his company, Sony, in the 1950′s, when it rapidly became a leader in consumer electronics. His goal was to make existing technology useful to people in everyday life. “He sowed the seeds of a deep conviction that our products must bring joy and fun to users,” one of his successors as president, Nobuyuki Idei, said in 1997.
While American companies were studying military applications for the newly developed transistor in the 1950′s, Ibuka and Morita put it to use in an affordable transistor radio and then found ways to shrink its size and power it with batteries so that it could be taken anywhere. In a similar fashion, they made tape recorders and players (such as the Walkman), video players, compact disc players, and televisions ever cheaper, more reliable, and more efficiently designed.
Ahero in the Japanese business world, Ibuka retired as Sony chairman in 1976 but continued to help out as a consultant until his death in 1997.
groove record. In 1983, the ratio of vinyl to cassette sales was 3:2. By the end of the decade, the audio cassette was the bestselling format for recorded sound, outselling vinyl records and compact discs combined by a ratio of 2:1. The compatibility of the audio cassette used in personal players with the home stereo ensured that it would be the most popular tape recording medium.
The market for portable personal players in the United States during the decade of the 1990′s was estimated to be more than twenty million units each year. Sony accounted for half of the 1991 American market of fifteen million units selling at an average price of $50. It appeared that there would be more than one in every home. In some parts of Western Europe, there were more cassette players than people, reflecting the level of market penetration achieved by the Walkman.
The ubiquitous Walkman had a noticeable effect on the way that people listen to music. The sound from the headphones of a portable player is more intimate and immediate than the sound coming from the loudspeakers of a home stereo. The listener can hear a wider range of frequencies and more of the lower amplitudes of music, while the reverberation caused by sound bouncing off walls is reduced. The listening public has become accustomed to the Walkman sound and expects it to be duplicated on commercial recordings. Recording studios that once mixed their master recordings to suit the reproduction characteristics of car or transistor radios began to mix them for Walkman headphones. Personal stereos also enable the listener to experience more of the volume of recorded sound because it is injected directly into the ear.
The Walkman established a market for portable tape players that exerted an influence on all subsequent audio products. The introduction of the compact disc (CD) in 1983 marked a completely new technology of recording based on digital transformation of sound. It was jointly developed by the Sony and Philips companies. Despite the enormous technical difficulties of reducing the size of the laser reader and making it portable, Sony’s engineers devised the Disc-man portable compact disc player, which was unveiled in 1984. It followed the Walkman concept exactly and offered higher fidelity than the cassette tape version. The Discman sold for about $300 when it was introduced, but its price soon dropped to less than $100. It did not achieve the volume of sales of the audio cassette version because fewer CDs than audio cassettes were in use. The slow acceptance of the compact disc hindered sales growth. The Discman could not match the portability of the Walkman because vibrations caused the laser reader to skip tracks.
In the competitive market for consumer electronics products, a company must innovate to survive. Sony had watched cheap competition erode the sales of many of its most successful products, particularly the transistor radio and personal television, and was committed to both product improvement and new entertainment technologies. It knew that the personal cassette player had a limited sales potential in the advanced industrial countries, especially after the introduction of digital recording in the 1980′s. It therefore sought new technology to apply to the Walkman concept. Throughout the 1980′s, Sony and its many competitors searched for a new version of the Walkman.
The next generation of personal players was likely to be based on digital recording. Sony introduced its digital audio tape (DAT) system in 1990. This used the same digital technology as the compact disc but came in tape form. It was incorporated into expensive home players; naturally, Sony engineered a portable version. The tiny DAT Walkman offered unsurpassed fidelity of reproduction, but its incompatibility with any other tape format and its high price limited its sales to professional musicians and recording engineers.
After the failure of DAT, Sony refocused its digital technology into a format more similar to the Walkman. Its Mini Disc (MD) used the same technology as the compact disc but had the advantage of a recording capability. The 2.5-inch disc was smaller than the CD, and the player was smaller than the Walkman. The play-only version fit in the palm of a hand. A special feature prevented the skipping of tracks that caused problems with the Discman. The Mini Disc followed the path blazed by the Walkman and represented the most advanced technology applied to personal stereo players. At a price of about $500 in 1993, it was still too expensive to compete in the audio cassette Walkman market, but the history of similar products illustrates that rapid reduction of price could be achieved even with a complex technology.
The Walkman had a powerful influence on the development of other digital and optical technologies. The laser readers of compact disc players can access visual and textual information in addition to sound. Sony introduced the Data Discman, a handheld device that displayed text and pictures on a tiny screen. Several other manufacturers marketed electronic topics. Whatever the shape of future entertainment and information technologies, the legacy of the Walkman will put a high premium on portability, small size, and the interaction of machine and user.
See also Cassette recording; Compact disc; Dolby noise reduction; Electronic synthesizer; Laser; Transistor; Videocassette recorder