Sony Walkman Reaches End of the Tape

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This late 1980s-era Walkman included a radio and recording capabilities. Sony has announced the end of production in Japan of its revolutionary cassette player. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer

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The device that changed forever how we listen to–and transport–music is about to become a museum relic in Japan.

Sony has announced that it ceased production in Japan of the iconic, revolutionary personal cassette tape player in April, and when those supplies run out, that will be the end of the concert.

The pocket-sized stereo was a revelation and a runaway hit shortly after its debut in July 1979, when it transformed the very way music is enjoyed. Prior to its introduction, record players and large portable stereos were the standard equipment for playback–not exactly the utmost in on-the-go convenience, although bell-bottom-clad hipsters could often be spotted grooving down the street with a “boom box” hoisted onto one shoulder.

According to a story in PC Magazine, Sony has sold some 220 million Walkman units in 30 years, but sales in Japan have declined steadily over nearly the same period. Demand for the old analog technology has all but vanished in the digital music era.

For those who pine for the good-old-days of tapes, Sony said it will continue manufacturing the Walkman in China, for markets outside Japan, including the U.S. and Europe. By all estimation however, the older device’s days overseas are numbered as well.

I recall the day in 1980 when my father brought home the first Walkman I’d ever seen. More so than the then-unprecedented small size of the player, my dad–a longtime expert on “hi-fi” audio–raved about the quality of the tiny earphones that were included. It wasn’t long thereafter that heads all over the world were being straddled by the lightweight, foam-padded phones, whose fidelity was a quantum leap from the singular earplugs of transistor radio days.

The little cassette player may be a natural victim of its own innovation. The original device was long ago supplanted by the Walkman CD player, then ultimately, the digital music device. Sony has carried on the Walkman name for their line of mp3 players, to compete in the market that is currently dominated by Apple’s iPod, which changed the very foundations of how music is distributed after it debuted in 2001. The iPod is now the worldwide standard for portable music players, much in the way the Walkman enjoyed that distinction in the early 1980s.

In fact, former Apple CEO John Sculley recently told Businessweek that Apple founder Steve Jobs was so impressed with the Walkman he received 25 years ago that he disassembled it in an attempt to learn as much as he could about how it worked.

While Sony will continue to build CD players and mini-disc players in Japan, it announced in April that it will no longer produce or sell computer floppy disks. The company also applies the Walkman brand to several cell phone models it currently makes.

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