The Sony Walkman - Commoncog Case Library

It is a little difficult to describe the cultural impact the Walkman had on an entire generation, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that the Walkman transformed popular culture in the 80s. There’s even a funny thing called the ‘Walkman Effect’, which refers to the phenomenon of isolating yourself in a personal soundscape. We take this ‘effect’ for granted today, but it all started with the launch of an innocuous device into an unsuspecting — and global! — market, by an electronics company that just happened to be headquartered in Japan. 

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

The interesting thing about this case, to me, is that the Sony Walkman was not catalysed by any technological breakthrough. There was no ‘technological window’ — save perhaps for the development of the headphones. Everything else already existed; it just took one man (Morita) to have the gumption to go ahead with the product.

But, a few other notes:

  • The first version took a shockingly short amount of time to put together.
  • The engineers were not convinced that there would be consumer demand for a product without the capacity to record (LOL)
    • Hell, barely anyone was convinced the product would work
  • It’s crazy to me that the 3.5mm headphone jack — engineered almost as a throwaway during the Walkman project — was the thing that became an industry standard. It’s also a little crazy to me that the headphones was the real technical challenge of the product.
  • Whilst we were doing the research for this, one thing that was notable was that even though the challenge was to ‘change consumer behaviour’ it really wasn’t that much of a change — Masaru Ibuka himself plugged bulky headphones into the TC-D5 to listen to music. The consumption pattern for the Walkman was already something with a healthy amount of precedent.
  • Akio Morita’s approach to new product development was deeply influential to Steve Jobs.

But, coming back to the first note: technological windows is just a nice heuristic for thinking about consumer electronics. It doesn’t always have to be true. Here is a real world example where the window existed for a bit and didn’t really need to be pushed open before exploitation. It was almost … right there, waiting for Sony to climb through.

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