Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sony to kill off Walkman

Sony has announced it is to discontinue the production of the Walkman, the portable cassette player that revolutionised the way people listened to music from the late 1970s. The device was built in 1978 by audio-division engineer Nobutoshi Kihara for Sony co-chairman Akio Morita, who wanted to be able to listen to operas during his frequent trans-Pacific plane trips. It became increasingly popular and many other manufacturers followed suit in producing similar devices.

But with the gradual demise of the compact cassette and the insurgence of digital formats, the use of the Walkman and other cassette players has declined. In the early 1990s Sony introduced the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MiniDisc which it saw as a replacement for the cassette. MiniDiscs were popular in Japan and Asia as a digital upgrade from cassette tapes, but take-up was slow elsewhere. DAT, Digital Audio Tape, and DCC, Digital Compact Cassette, were also seen as competitors, but all these have been consigned to the technology dustbin as the popularity of the MP3 player has grown.

Capacity and quality have been the main issues surrounding these devices continued use. But it is also to do with cost. A compact cassette was relatively cheap but could only hold around two albums. The quality was not perfect either. Hiss was a common failure of taped recordings though Dolby would reduce this to a degree. In addition, tapes might stretch, snap or become tangled in the mechanism. DCC was also prone to similar problems of a physical tape though quality was much improved. But where DCC and Minidisc failed was on cost. Devices were expensive and the tapes or discs were not readily available nor as cheap as the humble cassette. Sony even tried to rekindle portable players with the introduction of the Discman, a compact disc player. But this was prone to problems of skipping tracks.

With the introduction of the iPod and other MP3 players the fate of these formats was sealed. As ownership of personal computers grew so did the use of the MP3 player. Tracks were easily transferred to the device and capacity of the players was much larger than many could have ever dreamed. In a box no bigger than a packet of cigarettes someone can carry more than 60 albums. And of course the quality is better than anyone could have imagined 30 years ago.

The upsurge in digital formats, such as MP3, AAC and WMA, has not only consigned devices to history but also hundreds of hours of music and recordings. There will be few people over the age of 35 without boxes of cassettes they cannot play. These will gradually become unplayable as time takes its toll. Tapes are inherently ephemeral. After time the ribbons of tape may stick together, the surface may disintegrate and they may become demagnetised.

It is unclear what the durability of digital formats is. They appear to be lossless in terms of transfer from one device to another, but whether they last the test of time and another format replaces them, only time will tell. But as of next April the compact cassette will effectively become extinct, joining Minidisc, DAT, DCC, VHS, Betamax, Umatic, Philips 2000, vinyl records and countless other audio and video recording formats [BBC / CNN].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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