The Media Transformation Continues

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The Media Transformation Continues

To understand where we’re going, it helps to understand where we’ve been. If you bought a new car 10 years ago, it came standard with a cassette deck, but a CD player was a somewhat expensive option. If you buy a new car today, it comes standard with a high-end CD player, but a cassette tape deck is an expensive and almost useless option. The cassette tape, which revolutionized the way we listen to and share music with others, is dead.

Most technologies go through this sort of life cycle, from birth to maturity to obsolescence, but entertainment technologies are a special case. They change much more dramatically and frequently than most other technologies. And they are subject to huge, disruptive changes.

The cassette tape, for example, was patented in 1964 by the Philips Company. It was a primitive, low-fidelity alternative to reel-to-reel tape or vinyl records. It offered several advantages: It was smaller, more portable, and more durable because the enclosed tape was less likely to get tangled than the tape on a reel, and it couldn’t get scratched like an LP. As the tape quality improved and such sophistications as Dolby noise reduction and high-end tape decks evolved, the race was on to dominate the market.

Interestingly, big companies, such as 3M, Sony, and Ampex had been making cassette tapes for years when two Japanese upstarts, Maxell and TDK, introduced the first truly high-quality tapes in late 1975. By the late 1970s, Maxell and TDK were household names, and expensive metal and chromium tapes were all the rage. Recordings were being released simultaneously on vinyl and cassette tape.

In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman and completely revolutionized the world of music. By 1983, cassette sales reached 236 million units to outstrip the sales of vinyl records for the first time. Sony would ultimately sell 100 million Walkman units. By the mid-‘80s, long-playing vinyl records were fast becoming history, and cassettes were the mainstream of music listening.

But that same year, 1983, Sony and Philips both introduced the compact disk, or CD, to the United States. Some 30,000 players and 800,000 disks were sold that year. By 1990, a third of all households had CD players, and almost 10 million players and 288 million disks were sold each year. Worldwide sales reached a billion units.

To understand how the rate of progress has accelerated, consider that the long-playing vinyl phonograph record was introduced in 1928. Cassettes eclipsed them 55 years later. But it took just seven years after that for CDs to eclipse cassettes...

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