Hit rewind: Sony Walkman triggers nostalgia on 40th birthday

Sony’s Walkman — a must-have 80s gadget — is clinging to its youth with high-tech updates. (AFP)
Updated 11 August 2019

Hit rewind: Sony Walkman triggers nostalgia on 40th birthday

  • Over the following four decades, Sony sold more than 420 million “Walkmen” and stopped counting the number of models it had produced when it hit the 1,000 mark — about 15 years ago
  • Like many in the industry, Japanese firm was shaken by emergence of Apple’s iPod

TOKYO: Must-have 80s gadget and one-time icon of Japan electronics cool, Sony’s Walkman turned 40 this year and like its now middle-aged fans, is clinging to its youth with high-tech updates.
On July 1, 1979, as the global economy suffered through the second oil shock, Sony unleashed on the world a dark-blue brick of a machine with chunky silver buttons, the Walkman TPS-L2.
Priced at a hefty 33,000 yen — $300 in today’s money — the first generation Walkman could not record but its stereo music playback function quickly captured hearts in Japan and then the world.
It had two headset jacks — labeled “guys” and “dolls” — to allow two people to listen simultaneously. A bright orange “hotline” button could be pressed to lower the volume while the couple chatted.
After a disappointing first month when only 3,000 units were sold, sales exploded to eventually hit 1.5 million worldwide for the first model. The second model, the WM-2, which came in red, black and silver, chalked up sales of 2.58 million.
Over the following four decades, Sony sold more than 420 million “Walkmen” and stopped counting the number of models it had produced when it hit the 1,000 mark — about 15 years ago.
The Japanese electronics giant chose the name partly because of the popularity of Superman at the time and the fact it was based on an existing audio recorder called the “Pressman.”
The word “Walkman” has since entered everyday language but the device was initially called “Soundabout,” “Stowaway” or “Freestyle” in some parts of the world.
“The Walkman is my youth,” said Katsuya Kumagai, now 51, as he browsed an exhibition to mark the 40th anniversary of the first edition. “It was always in my life,” he added, scanning some of the 230 varieties of Walkman on show, which also offers nostalgic visitors the chance to play with some of the older models.
As an 11-year-old, Kumagai could never afford a Walkman and envied older children as they whizzed by on roller skates plugged into the latest sounds.
“I’m quite emotional. Memories from those days are flooding back,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many a middle-aged fan for whom the Walkman provided the soundtrack to their youth.
Sony continued production of the cassette-tape Walkman until 2010, long after the technology had been overtaken first by the Compact Disc in the 1980s and the MiniDisc Walkman in 1992.

BACKGROUND

• Priced at a hefty 33,000 yen — $300 in today’s money — the first generation Walkman could not record but its stereo music playback function quickly captured hearts in Japan and then the world.

• It had two headset jacks — labeled ‘guys’ and ‘dolls’ — to allow two people to listen simultaneously. A bright orange ‘hotline’ button could be pressed to lower the volume while the couple chatted.

Like many in the industry, the Japanese firm was shaken by the emergence of Apple’s iPod when suddenly a listener’s entire music collection was available on the move. But Sony has scrambled to keep up and the latest high-end versions cost well over $2,000 and look more like a smartphone with flash memory and high-res audio —  a far cry from the early generations.
Scott Fung, a 17-year-old also attending the exhibition, has never known a time when people could not listen to music on the move and said he had “only heard” about the Walkman and was keen to satisfy his curiosity.
“Ever since I grew up, devices have always had screens and they don’t have physical buttons,” he said clutching his smartphone and gazing at the early Walkmen on display.
“When I was born, Sony Walkman was already not as relevant... (it) was not really a big part of my life,” said the student from Hong Kong who listens to music via his smartphone.
But perhaps surprisingly, he revealed himself to be a fan of the older tech.
“I think this older design is really intelligent where you can just play and pause, go back and forth in a song, which is very interesting to me,” he said.
Fung is apparently not alone in his penchant for the old-school technology: a first edition Walkman presented as new and never used sold recently for 1.3 million yen, a mere 40 times its initial price.
Sony engineer Hiroaki Sato, who worked on the early Walkman editions, even said it would be “quite difficult” to replicate the technology now, as it would involve painstakingly reproducing high-precision components.
He said the current versions would likely not exist in 40 years as the recording formats and rechargeable batteries would undoubtedly have changed beyond recognition.
But the old Walkman has stood the test of time.
“Repairing this, I realised this is an excellent machine. If we replace the damaged rubber belt, it works normally. It’s so cool,” he said.


INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO

Updated 20 October 2019

INTERVIEW: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project to set ‘new global standards in sustainability’, says CEO

  • John Pagano tells of his plans to help save world’s corals by developing ‘amazing land’ on Saudi Arabia’s western shores
  • “What really caught my attention was the passion and enthusiasm of young Saudis for Vision 2030," says Red Sea Development Co's CEO

DUBAI: John Pagano has been involved in mega-projects around the world, but “none of them will have the impact this will have on Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“This” is the Red Sea Development Company, of which he is CEO. Along with the plan to build a futuristic metropolis at NEOM in the northwest of the Kingdom, and the Qiddiya leisure resort near Riyadh, it is one of the headline initiatives of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify away from oil dependency.

The Red Sea project is special, Pagano said. Not only because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman fell in love with the area as a youth and was a frequent visitor, and not only because of the stunning natural beauty of the 28,000 square kilometer region of lagoons, archipelagos, canyons and volcanic geology between the two small towns of Al-Wajh and Umluj on the western coast.

Canadian-born Pagano told of how he was “sold” on the idea of running the Red Sea project when Saudi Arabia lured him out of a youthful retirement that mainly involved flying airplanes. “What really caught my attention was the passion and enthusiasm of young Saudis for Vision 2030. It was really quite intoxicating. I thought it could be quite a lot of fun to be part of the transformation of a country,” he said.

Opening up the tourism and leisure industries is a major part of the transformation. At the moment, the Kingdom derives between 3 and 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) from this sector, most of it religious tourism from Hajj and Umrah pilgrims. Globally, tourism represents 10 percent of GDP and accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s workforce.

The Red Sea project will eventually inject SR22 billion ($5.8 billion) into the Saudi Arabian economy and lead to the creation of 70,00 jobs directly and indirectly in the Kingdom’s workforce, Pagano said.

“You have this huge opportunity to contribute and help the diversification process by developing tourism and a tourism sector which to a large extent does not really exist,” he said.

The project is certainly tourism, but with a big difference. Definitely out are the package holidays and Costa-style beach frolics. It will not be “Club Med on the Red,” in the words of one of his aides. “We are not seeking to be Dubai,” Pagano said.


BIO

BORN - Toronto, 1959

EDUCATION - BSc in mechanical engineering, University of Toronto

CAREER

  • Managing director, Canary Wharf Contractors, London
  • President, Baha Mar Development Company, Bahamas
  • Managing director, Canary Wharf Group, London
  • Principal, Old Fort Capital Investments, London
  • CEO, Red Sea Development Company

“It will be a luxury tourism destination that sets new global standards in sustainability,” Pagano said. “The idea is not to build as much on it as possible, and make as much money as we can. The idea is to protect it for generations to come.”

Luxury tourism is the fastest-growing segment of the global market, and high-rolling tourists are willing to pay top dollar for one-of-a-kind experiences. Exclusivity will be set by limiting the number of visitors. Of the 90 islands in the region, only 22 are going to be developed, and annual visits will be capped at one million in 2030, when completion is scheduled.

Nine islands are deemed to be so crucial to the ecology that they will not be built on at all, and access will be carefully controlled. One, Al-Waqqadi island, looked like the perfect tourism destination, but was discovered to be the breeding ground for the rare hawksbill sea turtle. “In the end, we said we’re not going to develop it. It shows you can balance development and conservation,” Pagano said.

If you want to get him really excited, ask about coral. “The rest of the coral reef systems around the world are dying, but this one — the fourth largest in the world — is thriving. We’re trying to figure out why. We’re working very closely with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) and experimenting with coral growing, trying to understand the unique DNA of coral found in this part of the world.

“If you look at it, the Red Sea has warmer sea temperatures and higher salinity values, yet the coral thrives. We’re trying to work out why, and to the extent we solve that mystery, the ambition would be to export that to the rest of the world — help save the Great Barrier Reef or severely damaged Caribbean coral,” he said.

The Red Sea project is home to a number of endangered species, including the hawksbill sea turtle. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)

Sustainability is being built into the project’s structure. It will be 100 per cent carbon neutral and powered by renewable energy via solar and wind power, and will make use of advanced technology to solve the storage problems that have so far proved to be obstacles to renewable energy. “The technology is available but nobody has ever done it on this scale before,” he said, pointing to plans to use solar power to make ice by day and use it for cooling at night. There are even plans for “artificial trees” to aid the carbon-capture process.

Pagano is working on another project with KAUST — “Brains for brine” — that seeks to address the problem of excess salination of sea water resulting from the desalination processes widely used in the Kingdom.

But building what will eventually be 8,000 hotel rooms, an airport, a small town for the 10,000 workers on the project, on the coast of one of the busiest maritime navigation channels in the world, presents its own environmental challenges.

He was speaking the week after an Iranian tanker had leaked oil into the Red Sea, but said that commercial sea lanes were far away from the project, and big vessels could not enter the shallow lagoon system anyway.

On-site construction will be kept to a minimum by the use of prefabricated units built elsewhere in the Kingdom and then shipped to the Red Sea for assembly and installation on the islands. He will have to have 3,000 hotel keys by 2022, when phase one of the project is complete and ready to welcome the first of 300,000 annual visitors.

The technology is available, but nobody has ever done it on this scale.

Those guests are estimated to come roughly 50 percent from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and 50 percent from the rest of the world, with a big proportion from Europe and the experience-seeking markets of Asia.

A big draw of the Red Sea region is that all-year temperatures and humidity are lower than other parts of the region, notably the Arabian Gulf. “It’s much more like a southern European climate,” he said, allowing for year-round business.

Pagano promises visitors “a constellation of experiences,” but what kind of resort will they arrive at? “We had plans for a special visa-on-arrival procedure just for us, but of course we don’t need that now that there is a Kingdom-wide tourist visa,” he said.

When the tourists get there, the resort will feel different from the rest of Saudi Arabia. It will be treated as other “special economic zones” in the Kingdom, with more relaxed social norms and an environment attractive to international visitors, he said.

“There are currently no plans to serve alcohol, but that is not our call, it’s a broader issue. But even without alcohol, there are a potential 1.5 billion tourists in the world Muslim demographic,” he said.

The Red Sea Project is designed to enhance the natural environment for future generations. (Courtesy: Red Sea Project website)

A transformational project of such ambition obviously does not come cheap, and Pagano admits to “many billions of dollars” in total construction and development costs. So far, the bills have been met by the Public Investment Fund, which has committed all the equity capital.

But Pagano is now in the market for “conventional senior debt” in a package that could reach SR10 billion ($2.6 billion). With the big infrastructure project — bridges, roads, a new airport — currently under way and contracts being announced at increasing pace — a fresh batch are promised during the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh later this month — those funds are needed, he said, and could be in place early next year.

“Plus, we are talking to a lot of investors and looking at the possibility of getting them into the project,” he said. French hotel group Accor is already involved, and he expects most of the leading global hospitality brands to play some part in it too. Contracts to build and operate the utilities on the development are currently out to tender to a number of consortia.

It is all part of the transformation under way in the Kingdom that appears to be unstoppable. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is aiming to attract 100 million visitors a year, with the elite heading to the Red Sea area to sample the “amazing piece of land” that Pagano is developing.

“It’s ambitious, but feasible. It’s starting from a low base and the vision is unprecedented,” he said.