Will Walkman fly?

On 12th August, Sony Ericsson’s first ‘Walkman’ branded mobile phone – the W800i – will go on sale worldwide amid considerable expectation. The specifications are impressive – including a 2 mega-pixel camera and 512 Mb of memory – but this handset is less about technology than it is about experience.

It provides an example of what we mean when we refer to the ‘total user experience’, a feeling which goes far beyond how a user interacts with a piece of hardware or navigates the software interface. In this instance, the experience starts back in 1979, when Sony first launched its Walkman brand on an unsuspecting public. Interestingly, the initial reception was rather muted, with less than 3,000 units selling in the first month, despite a major press campaign and the ‘guerilla’ efforts of Sony’s staff to demonstrate the Walkman in public.

Of course, sales didn’t remain that sluggish for long. Sony has now sold more than 170m Walkman-branded products worldwide and the name has become a byword for a whole category of products from other manufacturers. Sony is now facing new challenges – primarily from MP3 manufacturers such as Apple and Creative – but Walkman remains a uniquely valuable brand asset.

When a user sees the Walkman name on a handset, they will immediately make a connection with Sony’s long pedigree of innovative personal audio products. Indeed, the history of the brand may even generate some ‘retro’ appeal among users who bought their first Walkman back in the 1980s. I think a lot of people in the mobile industry are assuming music on handsets will initially be dominated by younger customers, but Sony’s Walkman brand has the dual benefit of appealing both to today’s early adopters and older customers who were in their teens and 20s when Sony first launched the Walkman.

I can see a lot of ‘Hot or Not’ columns in style and fashion magazines switching their allegiance from iPod to Walkman to catch this wave.

So straight away Sony Ericsson has an advantage when convincing users to buy into the concept of music on their mobiles. The experience has started before they’ve even reached the shop.

Even the most established brands, however, must eventually evolve. Sony Ericsson is making a considerable investment in new marketing for the Walkman phones. The launch on 12th August will be dominated by a private concert featuring Jamiroquai and Sony Ericsson will also sponsor the Jamiroquai worldwide tour. JK, the band’s front man, will be on-hand at The Carphone Warehouse on Oxford Street in London to sell the first W800i and sign his new album.

Jamiroquai, of course, is signed to the Sony record label – nice to keep it in the family!

Sony Ericsson will also be out in Ibiza, Europe’s summer clubbing mecca, to sponsor Manumission’s ‘Ibiza Rocks’ series of events from August through September. The company will no doubt be hoping to send swathes of sunburnt European trendsetters back home from their holidays convinced the W800 is the latest ‘must have’.

What of the product itself? Edgy marketing and existing brand loyalty can capture customers’ interest, but actually making a sale is something else altogether. The moment a potential customer picks up a product, the experience switches from something aspirational and intangible to something very different. They will immediately form an impression of its quality from the materials used and the engineering touches – little things like how the buttons feel when they are pressed, the weight of the device in their palm and the finish on the casing.

If this test is passed, the next challenge is to ensure the user can actually do something with the handset in the first few seconds. There is a very small window of opportunity in which to convince a customer to continue exploring. If the menu system isn’t simple enough to allow the user to actually something – like snapping a photo or loading an MP3 – within this timeframe, they’re unlikely to waste any more time.

The W800i should score quite highly in this regard. It has external play controls to compliment a relatively straightforward software interface. It doesn’t quite achieve the zen simplicity of the iPod, but that is always going to be an impossible challenge when trying to combine two very different activities – making calls and listening to music – in a single device.

A few simple things would help customers to understand the overall experience of the W800i on the shop floor:

– Pre-load each handset with some free MP3s. One of the benefits of being part of Sony is access to one of the world’s largest catalogues of music. Make sure there is something for everyone – two rock tracks, two drum ‘n’ bass, two house etc…

– Load a demo application which steps the user through some of the handset features on-screen.

– Install PCs in the shop which can demonstrate the synchronisation of tunes to the handsets.

– Have a Sony Hi-Fi in each store to user’s can see how easy it is to plug the W8ooi into the line ports and get their music through a stereo.

These last two items represent another key selling point for Sony. The W8ooi is a 2.5G device – no-one is going to waste much time downloading tracks over-the-air. Anyone who’s serious about their music will want to sync the handset with their PC-based MP3 collection. Sony’s got plenty of experience of this and is slowly expanding its iTunes-style online music outlet. It needs to be able to demonstrate to customers just how easy it will be for them to load music onto their W8oo. Similarly, they should highlight the fact you can plug the handset directly into a home hi-fi.

Any product which touches the very personal area of music requires an exceptional experience. Music is often a major differentiator among social groups, especially for younger customers. It is also considered a relaxing activity, something which enables the user to inhabit their own environment by choosing the soundtrack of their lives as they walk down the street. A mobile handset which seeks to offer these capabilities faces a unique challenge. I don’t expect Sony Ericsson to nail it first time around – and the W8oo is just the first in a long line of other Walkman mobiles – but it looks like a very promising start.

Sony Ericsson’s senior interaction designer, Kristoffer Aberg, is a speaker at PMN’s MEX conference, where he will participate in the debate entitled: ‘Innovations in software interfaces and industrial design‘.

For more thoughts on music in mobiles, see PMN’s collaborative project with industrial design consultancy The Alloy.

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