Karaoke Walkman Brings C+C Music Factory, Sinatra, Guns N’ Roses to MP3 Player Market Share Fight

One of Sony’s ideas for winning over the MP3 player market in Japan: A Walkman that displays karaoke lyrics.

Sony Walkman

It sounds kind of like the setup for a bad joke. One of Sony’s ideas for winning over the MP3 player market in Japan: A Walkman that displays karaoke lyrics. Sure, it might steal marketshare from Apple in a land chock-full of wannabe pop stars, but the plan reveals weaknesses in Sony’s business strategy.


Speaking today, Sony’s general manager of marketing Hisatsugu Nakamuta said his company’s hope is to secure at least half of Japan’s market of MP3 players, which numbers 6.5 million sales a year, with the newest Walkman. Why bank so heavily on its standout feature? Because a recent survey revealed 32.4% of teenage Japanese prefer the Walkman to other MP3 units precisely because of the enhanced karaoke feature. Nakamuta noted during a press event that “singing is a source of power,” and that Sony’s trying to “deliver new musical experiences” to its customers.

And in Japan, it looks to be working: Where Apple commands over three quarters of all MP3 player sales in the U.S. versus Sony’s 2% market share, in Japan both have just under 50%, and Sony’s actually beating Apple. It’s partly due to the karaoke powers, partly due to brand loyalty (partly do to the feeling one gets when belting out Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York,” or GN’R’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine”—but Sony’s evidently banking on the karaoke display to help its “big push” to win more marketshare.

Certainly, winning revenue wherever you can is a great thing … but a company like Sony (with multiple divisions making thousands of products for a huge range of markets) needs to be careful not to spread itself too thin. Japan’s MP3 market is tiny, compared to the global markets, where Apple reigns supreme. And the lyrics feature smacks of a very 1990’s innovation, given that Apple’s just added new video calling powers to its iPod Touch, and touchscreen abilities (including a useful pedometer) to a diminutive iPod Nano. Should Sony’s engineers have spent less time and effort chasing the tech to enable good sales at home in Japan or would they have been better deployed in making Sony’s MP3 players shiny and clever enough to compete against Apple in the greater world?

Welcome to the Jungle, indeed.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)