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Sony's pioneering Walkman finally plays its last tune

It was as synonymous with the 1980s as the Wham! tunes its leg warmer-wearing owners played on it. When Sony first launched the Walkman in 1979 it was derided as a fad. Fast forward 31 years (might need some spare batteries) and 400 million sales, the electronics giant has quietly pressed stop on the pioneering gadget.

The last batch of cassette Walkmans to be made in Japan have left factories, and production in China will also stop once existing orders in Asia and Europe have been met. Its termination coincides with the iPod's ninth birthday.

"The music-listening style of our customers has shifted so much to digital audio," said a Sony spokeswoman, Hiroko Nakamura. "We have decided to end shipments because demand for the cassette-type Walkman has decreased."

Legend has it that the device was first built in 1978 by a Sony engineer, Nobutoshi Kihara, for his boss, the Sony co-chairman Akio Morita, who was fatigued by the proletarian bent of the inflight entertainment during his frequent plane trips and yearned to listen to his favourite operas.

When it was launched in Japan in July 1979 just 3,000 units were sold in the first month. The American and British versions, the Soundabout and Stowaway respectively, also sold poorly, until new teen-oriented advertising campaigns arrived and it became a must-have. Although the iPod, now a cultural phenomenon of equal stature, is regarded as the Walkman's natural successor, in reality the portable CD player – albeit ungainly and prone to skipping – began the slow death of the Walkman.

Since that device, every advance in portable music technology has been coupled with a reduction in size.

For a while, Sony's own product, the Digital Audio Tape (DAT), effectively a digital cassette, looked like it might be the next big small thing, but it never took off.

Analysts speculated that the dominance of the Walkman in the portable music player market should have left Sony better placed to lead the next wave of products, but instead the Sony gambled unwisely on the Discman, which failed to compete.

The first incarnation of the iPod, launched in 2001 with a promise to "put 1,000 songs in your pocket" was a relatively sizeable unit.

Three years later the iPod Mini arrived, then subsequently the Nano, revolutionising the fortunes of the previously downtrodden Apple, many of whose employees, in their fashionable Cupertino offices, will today be lamenting the passing of an icon of their youth.