Could Ringtones BE More Annoying?!
Pages: 1, 2

Oops, I Did It Myself

Fortunately, anybody with a computer and half a brain can "roll their own" ringtone. On the Hiptop, it's way easy. Here's how you do it:

Step 1: Take any audio clip, off any CD, in any format, at any resolution, up to 17 seconds long.

Step 2: Email it to your Hiptop.

And basically, that's all there is to it. Now, at Danger, we do a number of things to make this possible and easy. Any data transmitted over the airwaves is first formatted and compressed specifically for our device by the Danger servers. That way, nicely formatted web pages and pictures get downloaded quickly and efficiently and show up on the Hiptop looking the way you want them to.

"This is REALLY GOOD NEWS for those of us in the audio business."

For audio, the service takes whatever type of file you throw at it and transcodes it into the preferred format for playback on our device, which is currently a 16-bit, 11kHz, IMA 4:1-compressed WAV file. Then the service attaches the transcoded file to your email and sends it on down the wire (or wireless, as the case may be).

Bing! [TRIGGER SAMPLE: "You've got mail!"] Your email appears with a file attachment. The attachment contains the name of the audio file and two buttons, one marked "play" and the other marked "install as ringtone." Now, wasn't that easy? Even cooler, I can then assign the ringtone I just made to play only when a specific person in my address book calls. That way, I can have the phone play "our song" when my girlfriend calls, or even a recording of the Fat Man saying, "Hey, it's the Fat Man," when he calls me.

The Hiptop lets you assign a unique ringtone to every person in your address book so you can tell who's calling without looking.

But more than likely, given that I'm so vain and I want to show off to all my friends just how cool I am, I'm going to forward that email to my buddy: "Hey man, check out this cool ringtone I just pulled off the new Beyoncé CD." Now, if he's got a Hiptop—badda-bing, badda-boom, no problemo—he can install the ringtone on his device and then pass it on to his friends. If he's on some other type of phone, it's not always so easy, but it can be done, using either email or MMS [Multimedia Messaging Service] or some other software. And given that the market for this kind of thing is usually technically savvy college kids, you can bet that it will be done, one way or the other.

Danger, Will Robbingsoon

OK, wait a minute; back up there a second. Did I hear that one right? A system that allows users to share audio files over a network for free?! Oh my God! It's Napster!

You can bet that the big record companies are absolutely shaking in terror at the concept of Napster for cell phones. They've been burned that way before, and they don't want to see the ringtone cash cow run out of the barnyard like it did for MP3s. And we're talking big business here: A few weeks ago, there was a very interesting statistic in an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal reporting sales of the ringtone of "In Da Club" by 50 Cent had outsold online downloads of the song. Think about that for a second. Here's a cut off a multiplatinum album making more money as a ringtone than as an iTunes selection! You can understand why the record companies don't want to let it be given away for free.

"You can bet the big record companies are shaking in terror at the concept of Napster for cell phones."

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a heck of a lot they can do about it, since this kind of functionality is already built into the system in various ways. And because the data is transferred over cell phone networks, the cell phone carriers get a piece of the action too.

Now, they've been making money on ringtones over the past few years by charging customers for the SMS text messaging and the WAP browser downloads that are used to transfer monophonic and polyphonic ringtones to phones. But beeptones and MIDI ringtones are of limited appeal and are quickly becoming extinct. The real money is in real music, meaning digital audio clips of recognizable songs. And since pay-by-the-megabyte accounting is also quickly being superseded by flat-rate all-you-can-eat data plans, the carriers are in danger of getting screwed on ringtones as well.

Putting Music on Hold

This issue has become very apparent to the major cell phone carriers in the United States. At least one Hiptop carrier's solution to the ringtone problem has been to require Danger to disable the "install ringtone from e-mail" functionality on their version of the Hiptop operating system. This means that you can only install ringtones from their built-in catalog, thereby ensuring that everybody in the food chain gets paid—the carrier, the record companies, and Danger.

We also set a copyright-protection bit, so that ringtones installed from the catalog cannot be forwarded off the device, via email or anything else. Once you download a ringtone from the catalog, that's it, end of story. It stays on your device until you delete it. Sure, you can still attach audio files to an email; you can even play them. But that's it.

Seems kinda pointless, doesn't it? And let me tell you, it's been a huge bone of contention with our users, who complain about it endlessly and bitterly; and start petitions; and write nasty, threatening letters; and jump up and down; and get all red in the face. And what really pisses them off is that most other Hiptop carriers, both here and abroad, enable the "install as ringtone" button, no problem. I have never seen so many people get so emotional about any [other] audio product I have been involved with. And they get so upset because they are being prevented from doing something they really, really want to do—express themselves using audio.

"Users get so upset because they are being prevented from expressing themselves using audio."

Carriers who disable the "install as ringtone" button are missing a very important point here, which is no matter how extensive a catalog you make available, it will not, it cannot, address this issue of individual expression. Sure, clips of the latest hip-hop tunes are great, and they sell like ice cream on a hot day, but people also want sound effects, movie quotes, recordings of their own voice, recordings of their kids' voices or their dog barking or the song they wrote themselves, or the song their girlfriend wrote, or that song they like that nobody else has ever even heard of.

No catalog can contain all things for all people, and if I've learned anything lately, it's that there are as many ideas about what makes a "good" ringtone as there are people with cell phones.

Now obviously, this is all a huge digital rights management issue that is better left to more qualified brains than mine. But the demand for ringtones is already gigantic, there's lots of money to be made, and everybody's scrambling to come up with some good answers. And you know what?

It's all bullshit! And I'll tell you why.

Ring in the Future

The current situation, with multiple proprietary ringtone formats and everybody trying to get a little piece of the action, is guaranteed to be temporary. Five years from now, the whole issue of "How do I make money selling ringtones" is going to be completely obsolete, eliminated by advances in telephone technology. All the scrambling and legal issues and technical limitations and consumer aggravation will be totally passé, unimportant, yesterday's news. And here's the reason: convergence.

"Five years from now, the whole issue of 'How do I make money selling ringtones' is going to be completely obsolete."


Convergence may be an overinflated buzzword, but it really does describe an interesting trend. For example, five years ago, putting a camera in your cell phone seemed like a silly idea, but now you can get megapixel camera phones on for free when you sign up for service.

And it turns out this is a very popular way to go, because again, it addresses a problem that people actually have—namely, "How do I conveniently carry a camera around with me everywhere I go and send those spur-of-the-moment snapshots to all my friends and family?"

Well, there's another device that is really popular at the moment; in fact, I'll bet many of you have one in your pocket right now—it's called an iPod. Now imagine, if you will, an iPod with a cell phone built in: a mobile Internet device with a fast connection and 40 gig of memory that lets you talk on the phone and plays all your music, all in one small, well-designed little package. It's such an obviously good idea, I'm surprised they're not on the market already, but I guarantee you, somebody out there is working on this concept right now. It's kind of a no-brainer, and given the popularity of all things convergent, I've got to figure it's only a matter of time before cell-phone-plus-iPod-plus-camera-plus-Internet devices are fairly commonplace.

As fate would have it, 3D artist Isamu Sanada posted this concept for an iPod telephone at the same time Drescher was announcing his prediction.

And when these "cellPods" become commonplace, the ringtone game is over! No more monophonic/polyphonic crap for sale at inflated prices, no more hassles over who owns what on whose phone, no more limitations on what ringtone you want to play. You'll simply assign whatever song you like from your over 600 hours of music to everybody and anybody in your address book. You'll even be able to set a marker so that it starts playing at whatever point in the song you'd like (probably at the hook). It'll be so easy and fun and convenient that everybody will want to do it, and you'll be able to have your phone play whatever music you like, whenever you like. Ahhh ... won't it be grand!

Cash and Carriers

But that's at least five years from now. In the meantime, the ringtone market is exploding because there are more and more cell phones out there every day. I like to think of cell phone carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile—and hardware manufacturers like Nokia and Samsung—as big ships moving through a sea of money, harvesting profits as they go. And like any big ship, they frequently leave total chaos in their wakes, in the form of multiple incompatible platforms, confusing file formats, and arcane legal complications.

This is natural and normal, and we've all been there before, with games and on the Web, but damn! It sure makes for a bumpy ride and makes it harder for us audio guys to turn a profit. And usually, there are no monetary resources to make our lives easier, because as we all know, sound is always considered secondary to the actual product.

[TRIGGER SAMPLE: "Errrr!"] Wrong!

This time it's different! This time it's waaay better. This time, the good ship Audio gets to ride up right alongside the battle cruiser USS Cell Phone, because we've got something they need: fuel and ammo, in the form of ringtones.

Cell phones—I'm tellin' ya, if you're an audio guy, you gotta love 'em. Here's a product where the audio is not secondary. Here's a product that doesn't work without the audio, thank you very much! Here's a product that's already in the pocket of practically every single person on the planet.

And since ringtones provide a nice constant flow of currency to the carriers, it kind of changes the way their businesspeople look at us. Now they need us; now we can make them money. And I've got to say, it's about time we interactive audio guys got a little respect around here.

So the next time you hear an annoying ringtone go off at an inappropriate time, don't get mad; get happy. [TRIGGER SAMPLE: Ka-ching!] That's the sound of money in your pocket, baby!

In Sanada's concept, the keypad detaches from the music player. Other visionaries suggest that the scroll pad be programmed to emulate a rotary dial instead.