Four Decades of Sony Walkman

Launch of the device in 1979 was a big step in mobility

Forty years ago, Sony debuted the Walkman, the portable tape player that delivered music on the go and introduced the world to a new level of mobile entertainment. The small personal stereo cassette player revolutionized the way people around the globe listen to music.

On 1 July 1979, Sony released the first consumer model of the Walkman, the TPS-L2, ushering in a first-of-its-kind mobile music experience that allowed users to listen to their favourite tunes anywhere and anytime. The Walkman, a brand name that quickly became used to refer to small, portable music players everywhere, was originally released as the Soundabout in the US, the Stowaway in the UK and the Freestyle in Sweden.

The beloved device had an interesting aspect of social listening to it, as the first incarnation of the Walkman included two headphone jacks, allowing music to be enjoyed with a friend.

Sony sold more than 400 million Walkman players globally since the TPS-L2 model started retailing, making this one of the most successful consumer electronics products ever. However, all good things come to an end, and the product that was groundbreaking in its heyday eventually ceded its lead to digital technology. As the Walkman became unable to keep pace with the digital age, Sony announced in 2010 that it would stop selling the iconic gadget.

The start of the 21st century saw the launch of Apple’s iPod in 2001. The iPod was one of a new breed of music listening devices that allowed digital upload of songs. But with the onslaught of smartphones, portable media players have been largely phased out.

The current decade has witnessed the advent of streaming services. Pandora was among the first to offer streaming, followed by services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Google Play Music and Amazon Music Unlimited, all going after the same target audience. In music streaming, users license the right to listen to the record label-sanctioned song at that particular moment. Ownership is never an option ― you license to listen, and you license again for an encore.

Formats mature and eventually decline. The vinyl LP, the cassette, the CD, the MP3 — each one dominated the market for about 15 years before giving ground to the next technology. In 2018, streaming accounted for close to 75% of revenue in the US music industry, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

In the end, the Walkman doesn’t just represent a product category, but also a lesson in adaptation and disruption.