Last week, Sony announced it was ceasing production of the Walkman after 30 years. At the demise of the once-so-popular device, we can only conclude that this was truly a breakthrough innovation that forever changed the way consumers enjoyed their music.
A successful innovation addresses a real customer need in a differentiated and superior way. Without a compelling value proposition, any idea is just a lead balloon that will never fly. In this particular occasion the customer need was discovered at very close range, within Sony itself. The lead-user that instigated the development of the first device was Sony’s co-chairman Akio Morita, who wanted to be able to listen to his favorite operas during his frequent trans-Pacific plane trips. Dragging around a Sony Boom-Box or Ghetto-Blaster obviously wasn’t an option for mister Morita.
The cassette player in itself wasn’t the real innovation. Technically speaking it was just an incremental line extension as Sony had already produced compact cassette players before, such as the Pressman. The real breakthrough was created when Sony developed a light-weight headset to complement the small cassette player, the H-AIR MDR-3 model. This total solution enabled people to walk, jog or cycle around without feeling too ridiculous wearing the large 70’s soft-padded headphones. It addressed people’s unarticulated, yet real desire to comfortably move about or exercise while listing to the music of their own choice.
Sony’s execution capabilities, fine-tuned to copy western technologies in the post WWII era, were finally deployed to surpass the competition. The product was launched in 1977 to become a commercial success. In 1995 Sony had already sold 150 million Walkmans around the globe, as the premium choice for the young and mobile music lover.
At the end-of-its lifecycle, the walkman got confronted with superior challengers, such as the Discman and the MP3-payer. In the end it wasn’t Sony that delivered the best value proposition to the customer: this time it was Apple that captured the heart of the customer with a stylish player and a new breakthrough innovation that drastically changed the rules of the game called I-Tunes.
The story of the Walkman demonstrates that it is not easy to remain competitive forever. It’s no simple task to create a sustainable flow of highly differentiated innovations to the market. Capturing the next wave and continuously out-innovate your competitors requires ongoing monitoring of the market landscape and understanding emerging technologies, but foremost the timely discovery of changing customer needs.
The Dutch Accenture Innovation Awards 2010
Curious to find out if the “next Walkman” is about to be launched? In the past months the professional juries of the Accenture Innovation Awards have thoroughly evaluated hundreds of concepts and elected their nominees who compete for the prestigious ‘Blue Tulip Award’. The award ceremonies take place in the first week of November. The Media, Communications & High Tech Innovation event will be held on Tuesday November 2nd in ‘Pakhuis de Zwijger’ in Amsterdam. On Thursday November 4th the winner of the Financial Services Innovation Awards will be announced at the Financial Services Innovation Event, to be held directly after the Emerce eFinancials event on that same day.