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40 Years of Walkman

Matt Alt writes at the 40 year anniversary of the walkman:

The Walkman instantly entrenched itself in daily life as a convenient personal music-delivery device; within a few years of its global launch, it emerged as a status symbol and fashion statement in and of itself. “We just got back from Paris and everybody’s wearing them,” Andy Warhol enthused to the Post. Boutiques like Bloomingdale’s had months-long waiting lists of eager customers. Paul Simon ostentatiously wore his onstage at the 1981 Grammys; by Christmas, they were de-rigueur celebrity gifts, with leading lights like Donna Summer dispensing them by the dozens. There had been popular electronic gadgets before, such as the pocket-sized transistor radios of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. But the Walkman was in another league. Until this point, earphones had been associated with hearing impairment, geeky technicians manning sonar stations, or basement-dwelling hi-fi fanatics. Somehow, a Japanese company had made the high-tech headgear cool.

This bit is wonderful, the precursor to the current “ambient mode” of earphones:

Even stranger, by current portable-listening standards, were the Walkman’s headphone ports—plural—and a built-in microphone. The Walkman was initially designed to be used in tandem: a “hot line” button paused the music and activated the mic, letting two users chat even with headphones on. This specification had come at the insistence of Morita, who had irritated his wife by not being able to conduct a conversation while testing early prototypes at home.

The next part is a bit controversial… Could Akio Morita have launched a successful digital music player before Apple?

Jobs would get his wish with the début of the iPod, in 2001. It wasn’t the first digital-music player—a South Korean firm had introduced one back in 1998. (That Sony failed to exploit the niche, in spite of having created listening-on-the-go and even owning its own record label, was a testament to how Morita’s unexpected retirement after a stroke, in 1993, hobbled the corporation.)

“Why Sony Did Not Invent the iPod” would be a great essay topic.

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