Sony is recognized as one of the world’s most creative technology companies with a catalog of breakthrough products and technologies to its name: the Triniton TV, Betamax and Betacam video technology, PlayStation, VAIO personal computers, Cybershot digital cameras, Sony Ericsson cell phones, Blu-ray DVD technology, the Compact Disc (with Philips), the MiniDisc format, FeLica IC smart card technology, AIBO the robotic dog and the legendary TR-63 transistor radio. With this line-up, it’s a tough call, but the innovation that made the most significant contribution to the world of personal electronics and the status of Sony is the Walkman®.

Original images – TPS-L2, WM-2 : : copyright Sony Corporation

Sony Corporation ,ソニー株式会社, began life as Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation – often shortened in speech to Totsuko – in the 1940s. It was founded by Masaru Ibuka, 井深大, and Akio Morita, 盛田昭夫, a couple of university graduates – Waseda University and Osaka Imperial University respectively – who had met during their wartime service in the Japanese Navy.

Totsuko had some early success with magnetic tape technology, but the company found it’s groove in the 50s, after licensing the rights to the newly developed transistors that had been developed by America’s Bell Labs and building Japan’s first transistor radio in 1955: the TR-55, which was the first product to carry the Sony brand. A couple of years later, the release of the TR-63 model, which at 112 x 71 x 32 mm was the world’s first pocket transistor radio and a huge global commercial success, heralded in the era of portable consumer electronics and announced Sony to the world. In 1958, the brand – which was based on a variation of the latin word for sound, sonus, and 50s US slang, sonny, adapted in Japan to sonny boys and used to identify sharp young men – was formally adopted as the company’s new name. The rest is history.

The Sony Corporation of America was set up in the United States in 1960 and, guided by the engineering brilliance of Ibuka and the marketing and business savvy of Morita, it developed into a multinational corporation with interests in electronics, film and music production, financial services, digital gaming and chemicals, but remains focused on the consumer electronics world that it created more than five decades ago. Sony redefined the personal entertainment space when, in 1979, it released the TPS-L2 portable stereo cassette player, a product that was for its time a daring proposition, lacking an external speaker and recording function, but allowing people to block out the sounds of the world with their music of choice – in quality stereo sound. The blue and silver player was marketed variously as the Soundabout, Stowaway, Freestyle and Walkman and it featured lightweight headphones, two headphone sockets and a hot line feature that muted the music to allow chat between the two listeners.

The TPS-L2 came about after Masaru Ibuka asked for a compact player for his own use. One of the company’s existing cassette recorders – developed for reporters’ use – was modified and Morita saw the potential of a non-recording personal audio player and had it put into production: It sold out soon after its initial release in Tokyo. Coincidentally a personal stereo recorder called the Stereobelt, invented by Andreas Pavel in 1972, was patented in Italy in 1978. As a consequence of ensuing legal dealings, Pavel is recognized as the inventor of the personal stereo, although it was Sony who first manufactured it and brought it to the world.

In 1981, Sony released its second version of the player, the sleeker and smaller WM-2 or Walkman II, with its metallic silver casing and distinctive orange foam earphones. The company’s competitors had also started to produce their versions of the Walkman and a new era in music technology had begun.

Original images – NW-X1060, NWD-W202, SE-W705, NW-E005, SRF-S84, MZ-RH1, D-NE511, WM-FX671 & Walkman logo : : copyright Sony Corporation & Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications

For twenty years, the Walkman developed with the industry’s technological advances, and the innovative portable entertainment gadgets that were introduced and brilliantly marketed by Sony and emulated by companies such as Panasonic, Sanyo and Toshiba were eagerly adopted by consumers across the globe. The cassettes that had been invented by Philips in 1963 gave way to Sony and Philips’ own Compact Disc, and the Discman appeared; this was followed by the MiniDisc and its dedicated Walkman series. The rise of the personal computer saw the development of a network MD player and accompanying juke box software that morphed into SonicStage. In time, emerging flash memory was used to make futuristic cigar and lighter shaped MP3 Walkman players and eventually sleek cell phones would carry the label. Miniature AM/FM radios also carried the Walkman® logo. The Walkman was a part of the popular culture. Then, in 2001, Apple Computer released a compact digital audio player made of white plastic and polished stainless steel that could put ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ and the world entered the 21st Century age of the click-wheel and the iPod. Though the Walkman logotype continues to appear on an assortment of innovative audio, video and communications devices, it has lost its cultural relevance to the iPod generation as Sony has seen its consumer electronics crown taken by Steve Jobs and Apple.

Since losing the visionary Morita and Ibuka in the mid 1990s, Sony has lost some of its magic, but the Sony website shows an organization far from moribund. While the Walkman may not command the attention it did in the 1980s and 90s, sleek and inventive electronic devices keep coming from the company’s engineers and designers, who are continually refreshing their brilliant Sony designs for all facets of a high tech 21st Century life.

Spotlight

  • 1946: Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha, was founded in Tokyo by Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita
  • 1949: The company developed magnetic recording tape
  • 1950: The company produced the first tape recorder in Japan
  • 1955: The company produced the first Sony branded product, the TR-55 transistor radio
  • 1958: The company became Sony Corporation and listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange
  • 1976: Ibuka stepped down as Chairman of Sony, but continued in an honorary capacity and as an advisor to the company until his death
  • 1978: The release of 2 products that were instrumental in the development of the first Walkman: the TC-D5 professional portable cassette recorder that Ibuka used on his travels and that inspired him to initiate the development of a smaller personal cassette player; and the TCM-600, that was used as the foundation of the first Walkman
  • 1979: The revolutionary TPS-L2 personal stereo cassette player was introduced, powered by 2 AA batteries
  • 1981: The WM-2 – Walkman II was introduced and the global Walkman phenomenon begins
  • 1984: The D-50 model CD Walkman, or Discman was released; newer versions are still in production, but are now called Walkman players
  • 1985: the WM-101 was the first Walkman to feature rechargeable flat chewing gum style batteries
  • 1992: Walkman players that used the compact MiniDisc format – holding 80 minutes of music – joined the Walkman family when the MZ-1 and the more compact MZ-R2 MD Walkman players were released.
  • MD developments included recording portables; players that featured MDLP Long Play – 4 times the content on one MiniDisc; NetMD players that featured USB connectivity to a computer and allowed music from CD or MP3 to be converted – via SonicStage software – and transferred to a MiniDisc; and Hi-MD devices that also allowed the storage of other file formats in addition to music onto the discs
  • 1994: Akio Morita stepped down as chairman of the company due to illness. He was succeeded by CEO Norio Ohga
  • 1997: Masaru Ibuka died
  • 1999: Akio Morita died; the Network Walkman NW-MS7 Walkman with removable 64MB MagicGate Memorystick flash card was released – it was smallest MP3 player on the market – along with the NW-E3, Sony’s first Walkman player with inbuilt flash memory; the first iPod was released by Apple, taking the approach of bigger device that was competitively priced and held more songs; AIBO dog-like robot appears
  • 2001: Sony and Swedish phone manufacturer Ericcson developed a joint venture and the Sony Ericsson brand was born; the classic Walkman text logo was replaced with the current liquid dot logotype design, which received a red dot award: communication design award in the same year, and the NW-E3 player won a red dot award: product design award.
  • 2004: the NW-HD1, Sony’s attempt to battle the iPod was introduced – a smaller hard disk player that promised better sound quality, although its interface couldn’t compete with Apple’s proprietary click-wheel controls and SonicStage couldn’t cut it against iTunes so it was a commercial disappointment for Sony
  • 2005: the Sony Ericsson W800i was the first of the Walkman branded phones that paired a music player with a cell phone
  • 2007: the NW-D series were the first Sony MP3 players not to be tied to SonicStage – they could load MP3 files from any software source on a computer. Later versions supported other codecs and video playback capabilities were introduced on newer models
  • 2009: the first of the Walkman NW-X series of multimedia players with their OLED touch screens were introduced; the first MP3 earphone only players of the W series were introduced
  • 2010: As its most recent response to iTunes, Sony announces Qriocity, a cloud based digital entertainment streaming service that promises access to music, video, games and books.

A good place to check out the company’s latest innovations is the Sony Building in the Ginza district, where four levels are dedicated to Sony consumer products.

sony sony building ginza

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