Tech and Culture

The evolution of personal music players

I was walking down the campus yesterday when I realized that almost 2 out of 3 people on campus had a personal music player of one or the other type. These devices were almost invariably MP3 players the size of one’s palm. Some people had headphones attached to their cellphones or pocket computers, but everyone was listening to some sort of digital media.

This made me wonder. The concet of carrying your music with oneself has really evolved during the last 2-3 decades. In the very beginning, after the birth of portable stereo systems, some youngsters actually carried their stereo systems to listen to their music. Of course, this meant that the devices were bulky and inconvenient to carry, but the fundamental urge to “force” your favorite music down everyone else’s ears superceded the practical issues.

Then came the Sony Walkman in the year 1979. This extremely small pocket sized cassette player is credited with creating a “culture” based around portable music that lives even today. The Walkman was an amazing device. It cost $200 at that time, roughly half the average rent in the city of NY, and could only play back the music, not record it. “Walkmen” ruled the market until mid 90s, when CD sales actually took over cassette sales at a global level. I still remember walking into any electronics store and literally drooling over the multitude of Sony Walkman models, especially the water resistant ones with little digital clocks and FM tuners in them.

The main issue with personal CD players was the size. They were no longer pocket sized, and had to be lugged around in your hand or through some sort of belt clip. Nevertheless, a lot of them were sold just because it is human nature to try to be abreast with the latest and the best. Sony started making huge mistakes around the same time. In their endeavor to be the best electronics company in the world, they started focussing more on proprietary and rather “odd” design schemes instead of adopting the most widely used ones. Actually, Sony has been adept at this ever since they were incorporated (cue debates about the Betamax format), but their strategy isn’t or wasn’t suited for a truly global market where functionality rather than brand value rules the roost.

And then came the age of the MP3 files. Suddenly, the youth was spending more time listening to music downloaded from the Internet than from actually bought CDs. While the industry and record labels (Sony included) were trying their best to curb the free flow of music, Apple came out with the iPod. An iPod was to the personal music market what a Walkman was nearly 2 decades ago. It was exorbitantly priced, played MP3s, and had a massive storage capacity. To take it further, Apple even tied up with various record labels to enable youngsters to purchase music to play on their iPods. Sony was left totally dumbfounded.

Apple had the same advantage that Sony had in 1979. It had a revolutionary product that no one else had, or in fact, seemed to have. Apple took cues from Sony, and not only did it make the iPods functional, but also a fashion statement. Youngsters wanted an iPod for the very same reason they wanted a cassette tape Walkman years ago. Only this time, people had far more disposable income, which translated to a greater market penetration and sales numbers.

I am glad to have joined the revolution last week, although not with an iPod. Truly wonderful times to live in!

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