The Return of the Walkman

The Walkman brand has shown incredible longevity since its inception more than 30 years ago. From cassettes to CDs, a brief flirtation with MiniDiscs, and now MP3s, Sony has subtly adapted the Walkman name to each changing form of technology. So it probably came as no surprise when Sony Ericsson expanded the Walkman series into mobile phones in 2005.

Now five years since the first mobile phone Walkman model, Sony Ericsson returns to the series after a brief absence from the market following the release of the W995 last year. This month it releases the Zylo and Spiro, two mid-tier phones in the sub-€100 range (below). The phones are sure to hit the prepaid market. But how has this market changed in the past 12 months, never mind the last five years?

Sony Ericsson Zylo and Spiro

From a technological point of view, MP3 playback has almost become a prerequisite for all mobile phones (excluding obvious low-end devices). Nokia’s 2690, released last month, is a classic example of a mobile phone that packs incredible punch — it supports MP3 and WMA music file formats and has a 3.5 mm audio jack — for an estimated operator cost of less than €50. (Walkman fans may recall that only the W995 featured a 3.5 mm jack, oddly enough).

In my opinion, when it comes to brand name and usability, the Walkman can still rise above the rest, even though other players offer the same music features. With the possible exception of Motorola’s old Rokr range, no other brand has such strong “music” presence in the prepaid market. Apple’s iPod music player on the iPhone caters to a different price range and Nokia’s Comes With Music hasn’t taken off quite as expected. Walkman has however built three decades of favourable brand history.

As for usability, Sony Ericsson has settled on putting physical music buttons (play, stop, forward and backward) on the front of the phone, along with the make- and end-call buttons, and a numeric keypad on a slider. This can be seen on the W205, W395, W595 and W995. Having owned the W595, I’m a fan of the slider-with-music-buttons design. When listening to music with the keypad closed, the device looks and feels like an MP3 Walkman, not a mobile phone. For me, this is important because it sets the device apart as a real music player, compared with anything else on the market (except perhaps Nokia’s X3).

But that’s not to say that physical form is everything. The W595 also features a side button that takes you straight to the last file played in the media library, whether it’s music, video or a podcast file. That’s much better than having to click numerous times through menus.

What’s more, while there’s no 3.5 mm audio jack, the W595 features excellent speakers at either end of device. These face outwards so the phone can lie on its back on a flat surface without being covered up, as opposed to various devices that annoyingly have speakers on the back of the phone.

Clearly the Zylo and Spiro have been inspired by earlier designs, and at first glance the new models look very similar to their predecessors. The big difference is that Sony Ericsson has now included social networking features that have become essential to many recent prepaid devices, (Samsung’s Corby series, for example). There’s also an emphasis on its support of FLAC format music files. As with the W995, Sony Ericsson has realised that music phones need a 3.5 mm audio jack.

If priced competitively at retail stores, both models have the potential to build on the Walkman brand and offer a different look to so many mid-tier prepaid phones that have jumped on the touch-screen bandwagon.

Personally, I want to see Sony Ericsson take on the high end of the prepaid market and follow the W995 with a qwerty variant — as long as it keeps the “look” of the Walkman. For that reason, I’m slightly unsure about the upcoming Yendo, Sony Ericsson’s next Walkman phone. It has a touch screen and resembles an X10 mini. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s like and what it means for the Sony Ericsson Walkman series.