Sony Introduces Walkman with Download Capability

The Walkman is 20 years old. As part of its celebration of one of the most successful audio products in history, Sony has introduced its first personal music player with the capability of downloading music from the Internet. The new Walkman employs Sony's "memory stick" technology to store audio files as large as 32 megabytes. The latest Walkman, which was unveiled last week in Japan and New York, is expected to retail at approximately $400 and should appear in stores in January.

Prior to Sony's entry, the market for portable digital music players was predicted to grow to 6.67 million units by 2003. That number may now have to be revised. Philips, RCA, and Creative Labs have all announced their intentions to develop MP3 players. Memory-stick devices have no moving parts, making them ideal as portable players.

Sony had delayed entering the downloadable music market until copyright issues were resolved. The company has been involved in a joint effort with IBM to develop a pirate-proof means of distributing music over the Internet, and is a major player in the Secure Digital Music Initiative. Sony has a vested interest in ensuring some degree of copyright security: The giant corporation operates Sony Music, one of the largest record labels in the world.

Industry analysts see Sony's entry into the portable digital player market as legitimizing a product category that until recently was dominated almost entirely by Diamond MultiMedia's Rio. "Right now it's hard for consumers to find MP3 players, because there has been only one," said PC Data analyst Stephen Baker. About 125,000 MP3 players were sold this year, mostly by Diamond. Aided by Sony's push, the category is expected to explode as the Internet grows.

Twenty years ago, Sony broke open a new category of consumer audio products with the Walkman, its portable cassette player. The Internet was in its infancy then, and only a handful of early adopters had personal computers. It is now obvious that computers and the Internet will be the dominant forces shaping life in the next century. Internet usage is said to be doubling every few weeks, with 50% of the North American population now connected. The rest of the world is far behind, but should catch up rapidly as computers decline in price.