25 years of Sony's singular sound

Walkman set afoot music on the move

July 29, 2004|By John Jurgensen | John Jurgensen,HARTFORD COURANT

Two years after John Travolta strutted down the street to the pumping Bee Gees bass line of "Stayin' Alive," a brick-size piece of technology gave the rest of us the power to do the same.

It was 1979 - 25 years ago this month - when Sony started selling the Walkman, a device so iconic its name would come to stand for all personal, portable stereo devices, landing in dictionaries and often losing its uppercase "W." Sony gave people a way to move through life to the theme music of their choosing.

But the Walkman did more than make mobile music for one a possibility. As millions of Americans donned headphones as the 1980s dawned, the Walkman defined an era of electronic innovation, sleek style and material status symbols. It also tweaked the way people used music to interpret and experience the world around them, a process pushed in new directions by the digital descendants of the Walkman.

Before its release in Japan, the TPS-L2 (the first Walkman model) was given long odds of success, mainly because it had no "record" function. The name also worried Sony's marketing department. To many, "Walkman" sounded like too strange a hybrid of Japanese and English. Discarded names for the American and European markets included "Soundabout," "Stowaway" and "Freestyle."

But even its creators were apparently uneasy about another aspect of the device: It isolated the user. Aurally severed from his or her surroundings, wouldn't the listener be indulging in a selfish experience, a rebuke of society?

Fearing this, Sony added a second headphone jack so two could share the music. Another feature was an orange "hotline" button, which allowed the users to communicate through a microphone built into the Walkman.

The orange button soon disappeared, but the criticism of the Walkman - and all the devices it spawned - still persist.

"People used to think of it as anti-social. But I would say it's a different way of experiencing the social," said Dr. Michael Bull, a professor of media and communications at the University of Sussex in England.

Bull studies the social impact of the Walkman, Apple's iPod and other sound-delivery technology, including cell phones. For a book to be released next spring (Sound Moves: Technology and Urban Experience), he sent out questionnaires to learn how people use their iPods. From the 600 or so he's gotten back so far - half of them from the United States - he's drawn some conclusions about the Walkman and its 21st-century heir.

The Walkman "was one of the first pieces of technology that allowed people to control their experience in places where previously they had been unable to," he said.

Unlike a transistor radio with an earpiece, the cassette-based Walkman (or Discman, or MP3 player) puts the mood in the hands of the users. By setting life to a soundtrack of their choosing, users can create a cinematic experience, constructing narratives for themselves and the characters around them.

What's more, headphones double as a shield from some of the intrusive elements of modern life, including the din emanating from others' earphones.

"The ears have always been perceived as open, but as soon as you put on the headphones, it empowers your ears against the random sound around you. By enclosing yourself in a musical bubble, you're managing reality," said Bull, who, incidentally, does not own an iPod to avoid corrupting his research.

But for all the publicity and pop-cultural cachet that the iPod has gotten, its impact doesn't equal that of Sony's baby. "The Walkman was a groundbreaking change. There was nothing like that before," said Matt Swanston of the Consumer Electronics Association. "All these things that have taken off since owe something to the idea."

According to Sony, about 50 million Walkmans had been manufactured by the device's 10th anniversary. By contrast, Apple had shipped about 3 million iPods by the end of 2003, two years after its debut, accounting for about half of the market for MP3 players.

"For all the general excitement about the iPod, it's still a pretty small market," said David Card, an analyst at Jupiter Research, a technology tracking firm. "It's totally a New York and Silicon Valley thing."

Or any urban area big enough to feed the fad.

"It's a relatively inexpensive status symbol in comparison to a Rolex. There's a certain fashion statement that people are making with these, but I don't think that's driving it," Card said.

Instead, buyers have responded to the iPod's sleek and functional design, its capacity for massive amounts of music and its array of functions, allowing users to store data or even DJ a party with it.

But no matter the device that defines it, the headphone nation is here to stay. Earlier this month, Sony announced the release of the Network Walkman NW-HD1, a slick digital music player poised to step up to the iPod.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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