Maybe it’s nostalgia but I think the golden age for Sony portable audio was in the late 90’s, some years before the release of the original Apple iPod.
I already wrote about portable audio in the 90’s and also about the quality improvements in portable audio since the 80’s, but I want to write about the Sony Walkman downfall because it’s something fun, even if sad for the fans of the brand.
In the late 90’s we had the Walkman cassette tape players on the way out, the Discman was still the only cheap way to enjoy true lossless music on the go, the lossy Mini-Disc was fighting for his life but not yet dead (never actually gained any traction in the US) , Digital Audio Tape became a medium for the professionals but DAT Walkman’s did ship and today still sell for a rather high price.
The portable audio world was thriving and it was a fun time to be an enthusiast, specially if you were a Sony fan.
The first flash memory digital audio players were starting to reveal their true colors since the commercial success of the Rio PMP300, but 2001 would see the release of the Apple iPod, the first music player to actually push the industry in the direction of the omnipresent “MP3 players”, ending the chapter of physical format on portable audio and thus bringing the end to the Sony Walkman kingdom.
Hype sells a great deal of gear, in the 80’s having a Sony Walkman was viewed as a status symbol, others brands would ride the success of the Walkman brand and portable music players would become cheaper and viewed less as a status symbol, also the Walkman brand was eroded after almost 2 decades of advertising.
When the Apple iPod arrived to the scene it made owning a portable music player something cool again. People like new things and the iPod was new, tiny, modern and rather cool with it’s simple white minimalist design.
Sony a global behemoth was taken by surprise and took too much time to adapt to the new generation of digital players and thus the Walkman downfall began, fast and steady.
The Japanese brand also stubbornly pushed their proprietary codec (ATRAC), memory cards and pretty awful sync software to their new digital players.
Sony had became too big for it’s own good, having conflicts of interests between departments, from one side there was the massive Sony BMG which would in 2005 push the Extended Copy Protection aka XCP and one of the most atrocious attacks to computer security ever made to protect the interests of a music company. Piracy was a big no no for this label.
On the other side there was the hardware company which tried to sell and push recording and playback gear just like their founders Masaru Ibuka e Akio Morita did in 1946 when they founded the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation.
From my perspective Sony executives were so worried about piracy that they refused to adopt MP3, going instead with the ATRAC route which had DRM, because of that they allowed other brands like Creative Labs to take a large market share from them.
Sony would struggle to have their prior status in the consumer market, the arrival of smartphones sealed the fate of the Walkman brand.
Now the public sees no point in having something an app and a smartphone can easily replace, the “MP3 player” era is now gone, replaced with smartphones and wireless audio streaming.
Hope you enjoyed my take on the Walkman downfall, feel free to leave your opinion, I very much appreciate it.
Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony