Portable Audio 30 Years After the Walkman

This summer saw decade anniversaries of two of the most important events in the modern music business: June was the 10 year anniversary of Napster and yesterday (July 1st) was the 30 year anniversary of Sony’s Walkman (though for the pedants out there this is the anniversary of it coming to market, the product was actually first built in 1978).

Both, in their respective ways, fundamentally changed the shape and direction of the recorded music business but both are also transitory technologies.  My colleague Moira Dorsey recently presented a concept at the Forrester Consumer Experience Forum on how new technology imitates old technology when it first arrives on the scene.  She used the example of the history of the car to illustrate the point: emerging first as a steam powered horseless carriage in the late 18th century, taking its first major step forward with the Benz 4 stroke engine car in the late 19th century, finding something close to its true form in the 1920’s and eventually ending up with the likes of the S Class Mercedes Benz now.

The Walkman fits neatly into this evolution.  It was at inception, though groundbreaking, essentially no more than scaled down version of the cassette tape player, just as the CD Walkman was a scaled down version of the home CD player years later.  These were the steam carriages of portable audio.  It wasn’t until Sony launched the MiniDisk that we started to see a step change, though this was still physical media, it was high-capacity, small-form factor, user recordable digital media.  This was the Benz 4 stroke of portable audio.  Then, 11 years ago came the first ever MP3 player, and though Rio’s PMP3000 (launched in October 1998) often claims this mantle it was in fact the MPMan, which was launched a few months earlier.  The reason Rio’s player has the higher profile is because of a law suit brought by the RIAA that argued the device encouraged illegal copying of music.  Rio eventually won, using the Betamax case as precedent, but the technology that now lies at the heart of the digital music revolution was nearly killed off at birth.   It survived and the Rio goes down as the equivalent of 1920’s cars: it presented a mass market, reasonably affordable device to consumers that let them take more music with them than ever before and consume it in ways that tape and CD were not capable of.

Of course it was the iPod which really changed the game, coming to market in October 2001 and followed by the iTunes Music Store in April 2003.  Apple's new product was a masterclass of early follower benefiting from the mistakes of first-to-market innovator.  The iPod perfected the genre, gelling great form factor with an equally compelling user experience.  The iPod is in so many ways the  Mercedes Benz S Class of portable audio.  But just as the S Class is a moment in time, so is the iPod.  Though Apple have pushed innovation to the limit, continually raising the standards to which the competitive marketplace aspires, we are only 30 years after the launch of the Walkman.  It would be foolhardy to suggest that it took 30 years for portable audio to find its optimal development.  Another 30 years from now the iPod Touch will look just as cumbersome to a teenager as the Walkman does now to the iPod generation. 

What is inescapable now though, is that the Walkman started the revolution that has in the last decade fundamentally transformed how we consume music and our expectations of what we can do with it, where and when.  Without the clunky Walkman of the late 70’s we wouldn’t have the iPod of the late 2000’s.

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