As Sony's Iconic Walkman Turns 30, the World Looks to Apple for 'the Next Big Thing'

One has to be of a certain age to recall the wonder of Sony's Walkman portable music player, which yesterday marked its 30th birthday. The first truly portable recorded music player, it was small enough to clip to a belt, but still far from pocket size. Its size was amazing because it was a mechanical device — with actual moving parts — which played cassette tapes that by themselves were bigger than even the largest iPod, even though they provided just a tiny fraction of the storage capacity. The Walkman's anniversary has been maked with nostalgia (see "Sony Walkman Turns 30: Memories of an Iconic Gadget," in PCWorld); curiosity (see BBC story in which a teenager was asked to evaluate an original Walkman);  and a lament about the conspicuous absence of a "next big thing" from Sony (see Associated Press article, "Sony Struggling as Walkman Hits 30th Anniversary").

Knowledge at Wharton offered the same lament in a 2005 article, "Sony's Next Act: Will It Play?" in which Wharton operations and information management professor Eric Clemons said that Apple Computer's hit iPod could just as easily have been the sPod, with the "s" standing for Sony. "There is no reason that Sony, or anyone else, could not have [done this]. I'm still surprised that Apple did." It was possible, Clemons added, that Sony didn't see the iPod threat because it was worried about protecting its Walkman line and sales of conventional CDs. The bottom line: Sony didn't think of ways to destroy its current businesses to create new ones.

Of course, the Walkman lives on as an MP3 player; the latest model was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal last month. Still, the new product is seen by some as an example of Sony's current role in the consumer electronics market: an innovator at the margins.

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