Popular Songs Can Replace Cell-Phone Rings.
By Dawn C. Chmielewski
Cellular ringtones are like noses:
Everyone's got one. And no one's is particularly special -- or recognizable in a
But suddenly, cellular phones are changing their tunes, as a growing number of
users abandon generic ringtones for customizable tunes that express their quirky
Take Kevin Oates. Whenever a college pal calls, his phone rings the University
of Southern California fight song. When it's the boss, it beeps the funeral
march. Other calls jar him to attention to Blink 182's angry anthem, "Damn It."
It's part fashion statement; part sanity saver.
"You know how, when the Nokia tone rings, everyone reaches for their phone? You
can eliminate that," said Oates, a 24-year-old Los Angeles marketing executive.
"More than anything else, it's just nice not to reach for your phone every time
you hear a familiar tune."
Downloadable ringtones are already golden oldies in Europe and Japan, which
regularly pass the United States on the early-adopter curve when it comes to
cellular-phone innovation. It's a $350 million business in Japan, where
teenagers race to become the first in their group to download the latest hits.
Distinctive ringtones are considered an accessory that says as much about the
user's personality as the cartoon characters that dangle from the phone,
keychain-like, or its custom face plate. Catchy ringtones are even more popular
in Europe, where consumers are expected to shell out nearly $1 billion this year
alone so their phones ring with the James Bond theme.
And that's music to the U.S. cellular phone industry's ears. A trio of wireless
carriers -- Cingular, AT&T Wireless and VoiceStream -- started offering ringtone
services this summer. Others, like Sprint PCS, are reportedly poised to offer
custom ringtones later this month.
"The usage has exceeded our exceeded our expectations," said Dahna Hull,
Cingular's director for consumer product development. "We've seen them be
extremely popular. ...We've tried to keep it simple for the customer, keep the
pricing simple, so it enhances the user experience."
Each carrier offers hundreds of monophonic melodies to choose from, ranging from
the nostalgic -- "Theme from Pink Panther," or popular television shows from
yesteryear, like "I Love Lucy" and "Scooby-Doo" -- to the contemporary, with
hits like Jay Z's "Hard Knock Life" or the annoyingly resilient "Survivor" from
"My mom called me the week after it launched -- and said, `How come you don't
have "American Pie" out there?'" said Hull, in what she described as the
surprisingly broad allure of a catchy tune.
The fees are intentionally small -- 99 cents for a 15- to 30-second musical
interlude -- so consumers will experiment with the service. Soon, the
potato-chip effect kicks in. And consumers can't resist coming back for more.
That's what happened with Oates, who went to the Cingular Web site one day to
check his bill when he noticed a promotion for personalized ringtones. He
discovered his Nokia phone -- which comes with several pre-programmed rings --
leaves room for five additional tunes.
Soon, he was sending ringtones to friends, like so many electronic greeting
cards. The friend's phone rings and they get a message alerting them a audio
message is waiting.
"Once a month, I look at whether there's anything I want to grab from site. If
it's a friend's birthday, I'll send `Happy Birthday,'" said Oates. With the
approach of the holidays "I'll definitely start sending people `Jingle Bells.'"
Creating unique cell-phone ringtones was once a geek art form, requiring a
keypad composer and the patience to roll your own rock-'n'-roll melodies. A
Santa Monica firm, YourMobile, simplified the process -- and brought
customizable rings to the masses.
In April 1999, it created a Web site where consumers could download song
snippets for free. That sparked a Napster-like sensation, with more than 11
million individuals downloading 80 million ringtones over the course of 16
YourMobile's popularity attracted the attention of two groups: domestic wireless
carriers, which recognized the potential to cash in on a new fad; and one of the
world's biggest music publishers -- EMI -- which filed a copyright-infringement
YourMobile's chief executive, Anthony Stonefield, knows a turning point when he
sees one. He resolved the rights dispute with EMI, signed distribution deals
with all five major record labels -- most recently, Sony Music Entertainment --
and repackaged his budding ringtone business as a back-end technology for
It provides the invisible technology that delivers tones for Cingular customers
and other carriers. Consumers go to their cellular-phone provider's Web site and
preview the abbreviated musical melodies.
To select a ringtone, the consumer enters the four-digit code associated with
the tune -- much like picking a song from a jukebox. The carrier sends the new
custom ring to the handset through the same part of the wireless spectrum
reserved for short messages. The tune arrives with a beep and a message asking
whether the user would like to preview the song, save it or discard it.
Phones equipped with wireless Web browsers can directly request a new ringtone
through their handset and it downloads instantly.
Cellular-phone carriers hope that the practice of paying for catchy tunes will
get consumers in the habit of paying for extra services delivered via instant
message. For instance, Cingular sells trivia questions -- five for $1.
"We'll sit for hours in the sports bar down the street, doing sports trivia,"
said Hull, who says she hopes consumers will prefer spending their idle time at
airports playing a downloadable hand of blackjack or poker to purging old e-mail
The coming generation of phones will support enhanced messaging services, which
debuted recently in Europe, that allow you to download images to phones. But
that, too, is a transitional phone technology that prepares the way for
multimedia messaging, in which cell-phone users download movie trailers or
animations to over cellular phone networks, "One of my counterparts in Europe
said someone set up site to do color background images for the phone. Within
eight days, they'd already had one million downloads," said Ted Browne, product
marketing director for Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. "These are the kinds
of things we'll see coming over here to the U.S., in the form of personalization
of the phone."
Such wireless entertainment services should generate $1.2 billion in revenue by
2005, according to the Yankee Group, a market researcher in Cambridge, Mass.
It'll likely grow in tandem with the number of teens with cellular phones.
Already, one in three teenagers have their own cell phones. By 2006, Yankee
projects the overall penetration will reach 70 percent with an age group that
has a higher disposable income -- and a willingness to pay for services like
ringtones or downloadable sports trivia.
And where the teen market goes, expect Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys to