You don't have to be very old to
remember how dramatic the Princess phone seemed when it was first introduced in
1959. Its slogan -- ''It's little, it's lovely, it lights'' -- was even farther
ahead of the times than the phone itself, since that slogan describes most of
the cellphones on the market today. The Princess was still just a Ma Bell phone,
tethered to the wall. It had only one ring, and that ring was free. But you
could argue that the Princess phone and its selection of muted pastels was one
of the first big steps toward the world in which we now live.
It is a world in which consumers can spend, as they did last year, $3.5 billion
downloading custom ring tones for their cellphones.
It would be one thing if all those people had bought all those ring tones
because their cellphones came without the ability to ring. But every cellphone
comes with several standard ringing sounds. Even that much choice would have
seemed like a revelation in 1959. But nowadays a cellphone is the nexus for an
endless emporium of stuff, including screen graphics and games. On the Web sites
that sell ring tones, you can choose from among tones taken from popular music,
from songs by Outkast or Linkin Park or dozens of others. Or you can download
what one site calls ''real tones,'' like ''Shooting in a Panicked Crowd'' or
''Evil Chant.'' In some sense, this represents another step in the convergence
of all small electronic appliances into a single tool. But the difference
between downloading Ashanti's ''Rain on Me'' to your cellphone, for $1.50, and
downloading it to your iPod for 99 cents is more than just a matter of acoustic
fidelity. It's a matter of context.
To the music industry, whose global revenue is some $32.2 billion, ring tone
sales are not inconsequential. To anyone who actually used a Princess phone, the
thought of spending all that money on ring tones seems like the very definition
of frivolity. But in our world, a teenager's frivolity is an executive's bottom
line. The days when you could encourage your kids to save their allowance, as a
form of economic virtue, may be long gone. They know all too well that consumer
spending -- even on ring tones -- is what holds this economy together.