Thursday, 19 November 2009

Icon #34 The Sony Walkman

For his second Icon topic @WH1SKS chose 'Iconic gadgets that are now considered to be a bit crap.' Suggestions have been wide and varied today and even sparked a debate on twitter about whether the Sony Mini Disc player was Iconic, but in the end, despite the Soda Stream coming a very close second, there could only be one winner.

Thirty one years is a long time when it comes to gadgets and over the last ten we have seen a dramatic change in the way we use portable music devices. But back in the late 1970's Sony made a product that was a must have. The Walkman. Easily as iconic as the i-Pod is today, The Walkman dominated the portable music gadget market for years. Indeed Sony continue to use the brand name on all of their MP3 players and still produce cassette based machines for some territories.

I had one of them and I loved it. I could take my music with me everywhere and listen to football via the in built AM radio. What more could you have ever wanted...? Well quite a bit as it turns out.

I made countless mix-tapes for mine, stealing tracks from the radio and later from CD's so that I could take my favourite tunes with me on car journeys and walks to work. But to be honest it was radio that made it cool for me. Out with the family for the day? Didn't want to miss the 3pm kick off? No worries. Just stick on my headphones and I was at Anfield for the next two hours while Mum and Sis looked at shoes. Genius.

The sound quality was ok, I guess I got mine mid '80's, but if you used the tape player a lot the batteries died pretty quickly. No in built rechargeable in those days, just a couple of double A's.

So why is it considered crap now? Well in many ways I'm not sure it is. In fact if I saw someone using one (this would depend largely on who that person was) I might consider it quite retro cool. Like vinyl. But the problem is the functionality. We are so used to our i-Pods and other MP3 players, with their instant access and hundreds of other features, that we would baulk at the idea of carrying one around. MP3 players continue to evolve and shrink but the original Walkman, whilst eventually slimmed down to just over the size of a cassette, was always going to be a heavier device. The other big problem is capacity. Let say you're going out for the day and you're in a Biffy mood. So you pick up Puzzle and you stick it in. Great. But on the way home you're in a Pixies mood. Ah, now your screwed. Capacity keeps growing and growing on MP3 players, the latest i-Pod Touch is 64 gig on a flash memory and the classic has a 120 gig hard drive. Thousands and thousands of songs at your disposal all the time.

Tapes could be a bit temperamental too, suddenly unwinding or breaking. Very annoying, but the thing I would find really frustrating now, but at the time accepted happily, is rewinding and fast forwarding to find a track. How did we cope with the constant 20 second wait to move on to the track we wanted? Obviously we have become so used to instant access that to not have it now would seem odd, but it's not so long ago it was something we could only imagine.

It's an iconic product that has been superseded by something far far superior but it's still a gadget that I remember with fondness. Even if it is a bit crap.

Nobutoshi Kihara - Inventor of the Sony Walkman

Tonight's post is dedicated to @lmlc, @ianmcshane, @RickHarwood (just), @Girl_in_a_Box, @fernandomando, Steve Cox (via facebook) and a special mention for Toby who I missed off of last weeks dedications.