The 'wizards' who cut innovation down to size

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am

For the millions of children who have become dependent on portable digital devices developed by Apple Inc, it is almost inconceivable that the company which was previously synonymous with portable devices was Sony from Japan. For a good part of two decades, Sony was the dominant brand name for portable devices, respected for innovative designs combining quality and practicality. Back then every teenager's birthday or Christmas wish list included the latest Sony Walkman or later products which built upon the Walkman reputation.

Much of that success has been attributed to Nobutoshi Kihara, the engineer known as 'the wizard of Sony' or 'Mr Walkman.' Kihara died on February 13 at the age of 84. Literature about him and the early years of Sony paints a picture of a man who grew up with a fascination for mechanics and engineering, full of new ideas. He not only dared to dream, but set about trying to realise those dreams into daily consumer products, expressing obvious delight in coming up with new inventions. Through his willingness to draw from multiple engineering disciplines, Kihara thought of ways to miniaturise many of his technologies with lower power consumption and thereby giving birth to the lucrative portable electronics industry. When judged by its most fundamental function of playing and recording music from portable-sized machinery, the Walkman still performs admirably compared to the latest gadgets. Like many of the Apple products, the Walkman appreciated that technology was only as modern as it was user-friendly.

But despite Kihara's role in an industry which is forever churning out new products claiming to be able to serve life's work and entertainment needs with pocket-sized devices, the greatest lesson to be drawn from his story is that ultimately, human innovation is irreplaceable. Sony's fortunes have taken a dramatic turn in recent years, coinciding with the rise of Apple. Again, it was the ability of one man, Steve Jobs, to innovate that caused seismic shifts in the industry. Kihara and Jobs prove that when it comes to innovation, the machine is smaller than the man.