Beware of Sports

2 May 14

In 1980, a friend of my father brought something with him on a visit. He called it something silly; he called it a “walk man.”

It was a ridiculous name, and as I understood it, that was because it came from another country where they don’t speak English. They spoke Japanese. How many languages were there, for goodness sake? I was ten, and I knew of the existence of at least two other languages. Were you telling me there’s a third?

Anyway, the “walk man” was a cassette player. A portable one. One you could hold in your hand. I’d heard of those before, but what made this one so special was that it was actually smaller than a cassette case. You had to pull the top to the side, like a transformer toy, to get it to be big enough to take in the cassette.

It was incredible. I’d never seen anything like it before.

It was all metal, precision made beyond anything I’d seen. The parts moved and fitted so closely and cleanly it was hard to believe it was real. This was future technology.

I was lucky enough to own my own tape recorder at a young age. I had a Panasonic cassette recorder that was about the size of a dictionary with a handle. I’d gotten it in 1978, if I remember correctly. I loved that thing and used it relentlessly for years. I knew how it worked inside and out. I had taken it apart dozens of times and was intimately familiar with its’ guts. So to see the same thing replicated in a device that was the size of a deck of cards was mind-blowing.

But you’re feeling better now, right?

This could not possibly exist, I told myself. To get the electronics that small, to get the motors that small, that was not something I’d ever conceived of. Just to get the mechanisms that engaged the motor and moved the playheads and capstans down to that size was beyond my comprehension. It was all metal, too. Shiny, cool metal. It made these extremely appealing little clickety-clack noises when you pressed the buttons that fought you just a little bit before they released. And the feeling of an independently-powered motorized device spinning away in your hand was incredible, even somewhat alien. It felt alive.

It was definitely the first time I’d considered that products were designed and manufactured by people who really worked hard to get things right. My ten year old brain hadn’t yet grasped the concept of industrial design or even just the notion of technology until that moment.

What my dad’s friend had was the WM-10 model of the walkman, still a bit of a design marvel today. It was the very beginning of the “Sony Age” of consumer electronics, and in this product, you could see how they were earning their reputation for design and technology.

To make the WM-10, Sony came up with new techniques to move the heads, to move the capstans (the spindles for the tape) and do it with as tiny a motor as possible, taking as little power as possible. It wasn’t like the cassette players which used your finger pressure on the play button to push out the play head. All mechanisms were motorized. The WM-10 did both fast-forward and rewind, it had Dobly and metal modes. It was so small that you couldn’t get more than one AA battery in it, so to keep the player from wasting power, a switch was installed in the headphone jack that turned the player off if there was no headphone plugged in. Sony also employed a unique way to get that one 1.5V battery to fully power the motor and the headphones which involved printing an up-converter onto a flexible circuit board that was then wound up on a roll and stuck inside a tube so it could fit. They created a new process for making the metal cases ultra-thin, came up with a new gear and belt system to drive the heads, built a new kind of motor, and pioneered new methods of printing circuitry for the electronics. Sony re-thought how cassette players worked and re-engineered every process to make the WM-10.

This all sounds very familiar to any Apple aficionado, doesn’t it? Smaller devices, re-thinking, re-engineering, metal casing, battery conservation, those are common Apple themes.

As you might guess, I wanted one of these desperately. But they were way too expensive. Besides, I already had a tape player, right? So it wasn’t until I went to college eight years later that I was able to finally able to get a portable player. By then, the prices had come down and I could afford one. But the one I bought was three times as big, didn’t rewind, was twice as heavy and was made entirely of cheap plastic.

So what happened? The design trend should have been that the cassette player would get smaller and smaller, until the cassette itself was too big. Then they’d move on to some new format that would be smaller. That never quite happened. CDs were bigger than tapes and the smaller Sony MiniDisc and DAT formats fizzled.

The WM-10 was the smallest popular cassette player ever built. It still has that title. Also amazing is that it was never even matched for size by anyone else. From that time on, portable cassette players just got bigger, uglier, and features were removed. Two things drove this: commoditization and sports.

Commoditerization? Are we talking about toilets?

To get the cost down to where I could afford one in 1989 meant that you had to ditch features, get cheaper materials and simplify both the mechanism and electronics. Sony already had a “cheaper” line of the original Walkman, the TPS-L2, and as that Walkman started to explode in the US, many other makers and manufacturers got involved in a race to make cheaper portable cassette players. Soon, there were dozens and dozens of manufacturers, all in a race to the bottom.

Still, that should have left a market for upscale buyers who didn’t want the cheap stuff and wanted the best stuff. However, as described above, the device had a lot of moving parts and was subject to damage. Modified models were produced, but ultimately, the slender and delicate WM-10 and its’ predecessors faded out as more and more mid-priced and low-priced models took over. The less expensive TPS-L2 was favored for better durability and therefore, a better value. The high-priced WM-10 was too expensive to risk breaking.

So commoditization helped seal the fate of the WM-10, but then there was also sports.


Because the WM-10 had a reputation for being fragile, the people at Sony wanted to counter the idea that their products would break too easily. Getting water in the device was also a huge issue for active users. The market was increasingly wary of the WM-10 and other expensive portable players from Sony that might break. What the marketing people came up in 1984 with was the WM-F5. Or as it was also called, the “Sports Walkman.”

The Sports Walkman used an existing “fragile” Walkman design, the WM-DD, removed the metal housing and replaced it with bulky impact-resistant plastic. They added giant knobs and stuck foam into the two headphone jacks, then invented in-ear headphones for use in active environments. It was not a waterproof device, but was advertised as “splash proof.” To make an even more audacious statement towards the new device’s rugged capabilities, it was colored bright yellow.

The device sold like crazy. It was easily one of the biggest successes in Sony’s history. It perfectly satiated the consumers, who wanted a rugged product that wasn’t going to break, or at least imagined themselves leading active lifestyles in the health-crazed 80’s. Soon, almost all portable Sony products would have a bulky yellow “Sports” version, from boom boxes to cameras. Other manufacturers followed suit, making their portable tape players larger and yellow.

In a few years, the Sports branding would start to fade, but the impact on the products was permanent. They were still big, bulky and made of plastic. They became silver or black, but the legacy of the Sports Walkman line allowed Sony the freedom to continue to create products that were produced cheaply, didn’t push technology, and were sold on the basis of appearance rather than features.

This also marked the end of Sony.

Spoiler Alert!

Sony’s fall took a long time, and it really wasn’t until the early-2000’s that it became clear what was happening to Sony’s consumer electronics line. But their course was set with the Sports Walkman. Over the course of twenty years, their technical innovation in consumer electronics slowed to a trickle, replaced by marketing and branding.

They had introduced the CD player in 1982, and a portable CD player in 1984. But that was before the Sports Walkman. After the WM-F5, the consumer 8mm camcorder would be introduced in 1985. The DAT tape in 1987. The MiniDisc in 1991. The Playstation platform would be introduced in 1994. In 1995 Sony introduced the first consumer digital video camcorder. In 1999, a robot dog. Six years later they would debut the Blu-Ray format.

The lesson Sony took away from the Sports Walkman was that styling and marketing was the preferred way to innovate their products instead of advancing the core technologies behind them. That’s not to say Sony is not technologically proficient. They still produce several components used in the most innovative products on the worldwide market. Its just that they, themselves, can’t put together a compelling product with their own innovative technology or push themselves beyond short-term consumer demand.

The company also diversified broadly, gradually becoming as much about content as it was about products. When you go to, it’s all about their movies. In the last several years, Sony sold off TV manufacturing along with it’s PC manufacturing and the hardware side of the business loses money.

That leads us to today, a world where mobile phones and tablets dominate consumer tech, and Sony doesn’t offer a competitive product in either space. Though they do make phones and tablets that are splash-proof.

And Apple?

Where this ties into Apple is in a little bit of healthy paranoia. Having watched what happened to Sony after the Sports Walkman, one might reasonably become hyper-sensitive to the use of aesthetics over innovation. Apple continues to create products that truly do push technology forward, but at the same time they will occasionally launch an old product in a new case. For every iPhone or Apple TV, there’s a Dalmatian iMac.

The concern is, when does marketing overwhelm the innovation? When does a Sport iPhone take the company in a new direction, tempting the executives with higher margins and broader sales? There’s no question Apple has been resistant to this, even as they release old iPods with new color options. They say the right things whenever they are challenged, but they do make products from time to time which are warmed-up leftovers.

There are choices Apple needs to make in the future. They, like Sony, have diversified from hardware into content. It’s a little different, in that Apple’s content offering is not it’s own packaged entertainment but selling entertainment and software as a service. There’s a lot of money to be made in selling services with ultra-high margins. Apple could face a future where their iCloud suite of services, combined with their software offered over iCloud and the entertainment sold over iTunes could supersede the actual manufacturing of hardware. For a lot of reasons, the business of making hardware is trouble to maintain. Offering internet services is far less of a nuisance.

Apple also has a reputation for making expensive devices like the iPhone and iPad that are easy to damage. A lot of folks buy cheaper devices not because they like using them, but because they don’t want to worry about them breaking. If Apple is ever put into a situation where their high-end products start to decline significantly in terms of margins, they might turn to cheaper products that have higher margins.

That’s when you really start to worry about products like the iPhone 5c. It’s the same temptation as the Sports Walkman. A more durable case with aesthetically pleasing colors, but the same phone that was for sale two years ago. The problem is that the 5c has not sold particularly well. It’s done okay, but it was clearly positioned as a “new” budget iPhone alongside the flagship model 5s and was advertised heavily.

So what does Apple do to change the fortunes of the budget iPhone? Do they make it cheaper and remove features while dressing it up in prettier colors, or do they invest more into development of the budget iPhone line to make that phone more unique and differentiate from the flagship?

One way leads you to selling off your hardware division and falling back on high-margin services. The other keeps you making great stuff.