Calls of the wild.(Mobile phones and image)
Byline: Vanessa E. Jones
Forget all the talk about
customizing cars. Now people yearning to put their personal stamp on things are
tricking out their cellphones. And savvy users know that doesn't mean just
These days customers can upload graphics to use as screensavers that cover the
front screens of their phones, or as wallpaper that decorates the rear screens.
They can download games that will get them through boring stretches. They can
install LED keypads that glow red, blue, or green. Or they can change the
outsides of their cellies' housing, covering their phones with shimmering
crystals or adding faceplates in a rainbow of colors.
People from teens to seniors are looking for ways to make their phones reflect
their ever-changing personalities. Their journeys usually begin by accessing
cellphone company websites, which offer a wide array of graphics and ringtones.
Some people turn to local cellphone stores, such as the Phone Zone in Peabody,
which sells cases that come in a range of designs, batteries that light up like
stars, and attention-grabbing antennas that blink or glow. Others delve into the
new world of companies popping up to service the growing demand for graphics,
games, and ringtones, such as Zingy, Mforma, Jamdat. Click on MTV or BET and you
can't miss the ads for mobile content providers Jamster or Flycell.
Then there are those who learn Cellphone Customization 101 from techie websites
such as howardforums.com and discover that they don't have to spend up to $3 a
pop to add these bells and whistles. By connecting their phones to their
computers using data cables or Bluetooth, they can download games, graphics, and
MP3 ringtones for free.
The customization business is booming, according to IDC Research, a technology
research group based in Framingham. About $100 million worth of ringtones were
sold in 2003, compared to an expected $1 billion in revenues this year, says
Lewis Ward, a senior research analyst at IDC who focuses on ringtones, graphics,
and games. Revenue from sales of graphics has almost sextupled since 2003 to an
estimated $275 million this year. And cellphone-game sales revenue has risen
more than 300 percent in the last two years to a half-billion dollars. In fact,
games have become so popular that companies are creating content specifically
for phones. Zingy, for instance, recently announced "G-Unit: Free Yayo," an
upcoming mobile game featuring members of 50 Cent's popular G-Unit crew.
What's driving the uptick in sales?
"Better handsets," says Ward. "Better networks. You can get your stuff faster."
But newbies, please be aware that you should proceed with caution.
"Sometimes with the customization, the [new] housing may not be as strong," says
Adam Drohan, 20, who started the Phone Zone with co-owner Dave Cutler three
years ago, when both were seniors at Peabody High School. "If you change the
entire housing of the phone, it will void the manufacturer's warranty. We have a
sign and we tell people, but it doesn't stop them."
By the time 17-year-old Nick Young, a recent graduate of Bedford High School,
received his Motorola V300 from his parents in October, he knew what he wanted
to do with it. His entire family had gotten the same phone through T-Mobile's
family plan, and Young wanted to differentiate his phone from the rest of the
pack. So he purchased the housing for Motorola's V500 off eBay for $15.
"The V500 and V300 are basically the same," Young says, "except for the
housing," which he learned from howardforums.com.
In a short time, Young had a phone with a keyboard that sported broader buttons
than the tiny oval- and circle-shaped ones on the V300; instead of the V300's
blue rubber cover, his case was blue with a stripe of silver running through its
center, which allows Young to easily identify it among his family's phones. He
decided against going with the third-party faceplates for V300s that can be
found all over the Web.
"A lot of the [cases] aren't that high a quality," says Young. "They're cheap
At the Phone Zone, customers can choose between three rows of cellphone housings
that cost from $40 to $45 apiece, including installation. The one with a graphic
of a $100 bill is popular at the moment. Customized antennas engraved with
butterflies or dollar signs or topped by fake pearls cost $15. If your local
phone store doesn't sell the look you want, you can turn to a site such as
www.myblingring.com, which charges $125 for a kit that gives you the tools to
cover your entire phone in crystals, just like Paris Hilton's glittering
Sidekick. For $295, the owners of the Los Angeles-based company will do the work
Mimi Breed was happy with the housing of her LG VX4400 when she bought it about
a year ago, but one late night the 55-year-old insomniac discovered she could
use her cellphone to identify one caller from another with different ringtones.
Now she has rings that help her differentiate telemarketers from immediate
family members and friends. It's perfect for Breed, who uses her cell as her
"In fact," says Breed, "I don't really answer calls that I have not assigned a
ring to. It could be anybody, a telemarketer or, I don't know, somebody you
don't want to hear from."
If Breed hears "The Tigger Song," named after the energetic tiger from Winnie
the Pooh, emanating from her phone, she knows it's her youngest daughter, Jenny
the Juggler (yes, that's the name the 24-year-old goes by). "She has always been
a hyperactive kid," says Breed, who works as the booking manager for her
daughter, a full-time adult and children's entertainer. "Now she's a hyperactive
Her son Robert, 38, is identified by the overture to "The Magic Flute" --
apropos, says Breed, because he's a calm person who lives on an ashram in
As Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria ringtone plays, Breed chants, "We're going
to do it, do it, do it my way." It's the one she chose for her 26-year-old
daughter, Amanda. The regal music is the perfect tone, says Jenny the Juggler,
for a sister with a "sweet but strong-minded" personality. "La Traviata"
identifies the outer circle of friends who haven't yet earned individual
While Breed uses various ringtones to identify individual callers, Young uses
one ringtone to identify all incoming calls, and he changes that ringtone
regularly. His computer holds 37 20-second fragments of MP3-quality ringtones,
some of which he created for his phone using his personal CD collection and
Motorola's Mobile Phone Tools software. Other ringtones he downloads for free
from howardforums.com. His collection includes everything from the theme for the
movie "Ghostbusters" to the Ludacris road-rage anthem "Move."
The ringtone he uses depends on what's going on in his life.
"Friends will talk about a song," says Young, "and I'll get the song and make it
into a ringtone."
He also uses the software to upload games and graphics onto his phone. At the
moment, the phone holds only SuperPutt Classic and Poker Trainer, but they come
in handy. "The best time to play with the games is during class," says Young,
who heads to Northeastern University this fall. "Teachers do frown upon it and
do not allow students to use their phones in class, but when you're not doing
much . . . it's just a good way to kill time."
Most people don't bother to go through the effort Young does to get free
ringtones, games, and graphics. At the Phone Zone, customers willingly pay 99
cents per graphic or ringtone, which they select from a big white binder. They
have their choice of the top songs -- the ringtone flying out of the store at
the moment is "Pon De Replay" by Rihanna, says Drohan, a top-10 song on the
radio station JAM'N 94.5. Graphics include cartoon characters ranging from
Tweety to SpongeBob SquarePants, corporate logos such as the Apple computer
apple or the regal-looking cat that represents the Baby Phat fashion house, and
-- due to customer demand -- images of naked or barely dressed women.
"When we first opened," says Drohan, "we would have two or three people a month
asking, 'Do you have ringtones and wallpaper and such?' Now it's so busy we
probably have 15 to 20 people a day. Not just kids, older people too."
These days, ringtones are moving beyond music as media corporations smell a new
route to profits. You can get clips of old radio programs such as "Abbott &
Costello" or "The Jack Benny Show." Sounds are popular too: laughs, blaring fire
engines, or barking dogs.
There are more innovations to come. T-Mobile and Verizon just rolled out
ringbacks, which allow customers to replace the sound a caller hears when
placing a call with the ringtone of the caller recipient's choice. It could be
Ludacris, for instance, yelling out, "Just wait, wait, I gotta pick up the
phone, a'ight?" or "Alright, hold tight, they comin'!"
"It's going to be a significant market," says Ward, of IDC Research.
Just don't expect thrifty cellphone users like Young to sign up. "I don't have
that," says the T-Mobile customer. "I don't want to pay the [money]."