Portable Music: Walkman to iPod & Beyond

Maybe you have also once lived in that ages of cassette players. Maybe you have experienced the last years of cassette players era. Or maybe your children are born into this streaming media era so they have no idea of what a cassette player is and what MP Man looked like. However, when you dust off your cassette player or Walkman it reminds you that the prosperous era of cassette and Walkman did existed once, and lasted for four decades.

The First Personal Stereo

The history of portable music literally started in 1962 even before the Sony’s Walkman. Let’s trace back to the foundations of the technology that made it possible for Sony to revolutionize the public’s listening habits. The humble compact audio cassette was a product of Philips corporation who came up with this for the purpose of licensing free of charge for audio use. It was to become on of the main dominant formats for listening to and storing music and remains to this day the last mass produced analog audio format.


The first personal stereo to use this technology was the product of Andreas Pavel’s labour, known as the Stereobelt. In 1972 he first pressed the play button on his invention to begin a recording of “Push Push” by Herbie Mann and Duane Allman, a feeling he described as “floating”. Finally, Sony settled a long-standing patent dispute with Pavel, who at last got his pay-out and the title he had desired for a long time: the inventor of the personal stereo.


Sony Walkman

Although Pavel was the initial inventor of personal stereo, or personal cassette player, Sony was the one who first took the product to market under the guise of a low-cost portable stereo. Initially named as the Walkman in Japan, the Soundabout in the US and the Stowaway in the UK, Sony’s personal player virtually brought the public the concept of listening to music on-the-go using lightweight headphones.


The first model was the TPS-L2, a metal-cased blue and silver design that boasted features like stereo playback and dual 3.5mm jacks. It came with a basic pair of Sony headphones and took 4 AA batteries (though could also run off mains power via 6V adapter). Once launched, the Walkman kept gaining popularity with a burst-out sales volume sparking Sony to release several more models, including the Walkman Professional in 1982 which saw the addition of recording capabilities. The Professional soon became a field tool for journalists, songwriters and anyone who needed near-professional quality recordings on cassette for its recording level meters and manual over input volumes.

The Walkmans Replacement: The Discman

Sony officially stopped manufacturing cassette Walkman units in Japan, though continued in China and the US for limited markets. The reasons for this may partly be the emerging technologies, notably Sony’s replacement – the Discman. The Discman was the first portable CD player on the market when it was released in 1984 only 5 years after the original Walkman, so it was called the CD Walkman.


If you have ever asked anyone who used to own a portable CD player (especially an early one), he/she will tell you that these units were prone to skipping. The original Discman had no jog protection which meant you should handle it with 120% carefulness. Eventually Sony had developed the high-end players with “jog protection”. Eventually the Discman lines were upgraded to play  CD-Rs with raw MP3 file on them, as well as Sony’s proprietary ATRAC codec.


With the Walkman dying out, and the Discman still climbing in popularity, Sony introduced a new format surprisingly in 1992 – the MiniDisc, which was immensely popular in Japan, though global sales didn’t quite reach what Sony might have hoped beyond motherland. Thanks to being cratch proof, jog proof and head-and-shoulders above the abysmal quality of the MP3s floadting around file sharing services at the time, the MiniDisc was a great format to most people.

The Digital Audio Player

The first mass-produced digital audio player-or MP3 player as the device was to become known, was created by South Korean firm Saehan Information System. It was put on the market the year after as named as MPMan, where it was rebranded as the Eiger MPMan for the North American market. The original device had a fixed flash memory size of 32MB, enough for storing about 6 songs depending on length and quality.


In the years that followed MP3 players became all the rage as the Internet became a household phenomenon and more and more computers were sold to consumers. The world’s first hard-drive digital audio player followed in 1998. Manufactured by Compaq and used a 2.5” laptop hard drive, the technology was licensed to HanGo Electronics and featured a capacity of 4.8GB and went on sale in 1999. It wasn’t long before nearly every electronic manufacturer started manufacturing an MP3 player, with some dedicated brands like Diamond (Rio), iRiver and sound card manufacturer Creative giving it a go, all with varying levels of success.


The iPod Legacy

Announced by Apple in September 2001 and on-sale the following month, the first iPod was a 5GB capacity white and silver box with a mechanical scroll wheel that required Mac OS 9 or X (10.1) and iTunes to transfer music via FireWire only.


Realizing it was a success, Apple released several more variants in the iPod line starting with the flash-only iPod Mini in 2004 which introduced the “clickwheel” that Apple still use today. The Mini was replaced by the Nano and joined by the screen-less Shuffle in 2005. Both of these models are still available for sale.


Apple’s latest addition to the iPod line was the iPod touch, introduced in 2007. It was the first iPod with a multi-touch interface, Wi-Fi abd a web browser and ran Apple’s brand new mobile operating system, iOS. The iPod was more than just a simple, well-branded device, it was also the digital equivolent of Sony’s original Walkman.

Dumbphones, Smartphones and iPhones

The aforementioned convergence of technology has long been a trend, and the first mobile phone – now affectionately termed dumbphone – with an MP3 player arrived in 2001 in the form of the Siemens SL45. The phone was also the first to feature expandable memory via an MMC slot, making it an incredibly advanced bit of kit for 2001. In the years that followed nearly every manufacturer followed suit, and Sony even used their historic Walkman brand on a range of Sony Ericsson phones designed with portable MP3 playback in mind.

motorola rokr

In 2005 Steve Jobs announced that Motorola Rokr was the first phone to be compatible with iTunes, which in hindsight was an odd partnership since Apple was already working on its own iPhone with iPod capabilities, Safari and the ability to run proprietary apps. With the release of Android the year later, the modern mobile world we now live in was basically formed.

Over the next 5 years services like Spotify and Grooveshark set their targets on the mobile market. Spotify has arguably been the most successful of the mobile streaming services thus far, having launched its app on both Android operating system and iOS version. This allowed for both the streaming of both the streaming of music from the service over 3G connections and offline sync of playlists, with Grooveshark shunned on iOS but using emerging HTML 5 technology to circumvent Apple’s (and anyone else’s) restrictions.

As for how far streaming media will go, this is a God-knows question. However, it can implied that the streaming media era won’t be changing for a while since there is no better candidate so far. If you have any thoughts please share it leaving it on the comment below. We’d like to hear that.