Cell phones were once used exclusively by the rich—or by super-spies like 007 and Maxwell Smart (remember that iconic shoe phone!)
As brick-like monstrosities shrunk to minuscule pieces of tech that don’t even bulge in your pocket, like Cricket cell phones, ringtones went from irritating, monophonic chirps to the clearest of MP3s (some of which are equally irritating).
No longer do we turn in surprise when we here someone’s shirt pocket or purse belt out, “Pick up the Phone!” in Donkey’s voice (from Shrek). In fact, ringtone sales are now big business. A recent survey by PriceGrabber reported the majority of mobile shoppers, 61%, have purchased a ringtone within the past year.
Of course, many cell-phone owners purchase several. With more than three billion cell phones in use, a lot of dough is forked over at $2 to $6 a sound clip. If you’re interested in how the ringtone has gone from crappy to amazing, here’s a brief history of its rapid evolution:
Timeframe: 1973 to 1995
From the time that the first cell phone was invented in 1973 all the way through 1995, all these devices sounded pretty much the same: a basic chirp that indicated an incoming call needed to be answered.
Although one cell-phone brand might sound slightly different from the next, you were pretty much stuck with what you got when you purchased a phone. Except for changing the volume, there were no customizable features.
The Customizable Breakthrough
A Japanese cell-phone maker, NEC, released the first commercially-available cell phone with changeable ringtones in May 1996. With just a few pre-recorded songs in the MIDI format, cell-phone users were sold! At last, they had a little variety built into what was still considered a luxury device.
Later that year, in September, another company released a phone that had another great advancement. This one allowed the user to create original tunes, instead of using the built-in songs. A how-to book that detailed how to chirp the most popular songs of that year sold 3.5 million copies during this time period.
Even though these user-created tunes sounded like hit songs of the day (sort of), they weren’t anything like today’s modern ringtones. Because the phones were still only capable of producing monophonic tones (one tone at a time), the melodies were very basic and rudimentary – think of it as a Close Encounter’s style.
The Age of Polyphonics
Talk about music to the ears! When polyphonic ringtones were created in 2002, these realistic sounds caught on, and everyone who could afford one (or just had to have the latest gadget anyway). Nokia was the first company to release a phone with polyphonic capabilities, but every other major provider soon followed suit.
Soon after these phones flooded the market, ringtone websites began to fill the Internet. With just a click and a transfer, cell-phone users could download just about any Top 40 song to their phone for a selection of ringtones that sounded almost as good as the recorded versions.
Polyphonic still wasn’t what we’re used to hearing today. Although, the phones were capable of producing more than one note at a time, and a wide array of synthesized instrument sounds could be duplicated, polyphonic ringtones were not capable of reproducing the human voice.
Truetone – The MP3 Revolution
This was a busy year for the cell-phone industry! No sooner had polyphonic ringtones enthralled the public than the MP3 revolution began. These audio clips were simply outtakes from popular songs in a standard MP3 or AAC format—by adding one of these to a cell phone, the device began playing stereo-quality music whenever a call was received.
Although this development increased the commercial offerings from ringtone suppliers, users soon learned how to create their own ringtones as soon as MP3 players and file-sharing became popular. This did put a slight dent in this budding industry, but it certainly didn’t put them out of business.
The very first Truetone ringtone released was “My Gift to You” by a now-obscure group called Chemistry. In fact, without this claim to fame, both the song and the group would now have faded from all modern thought.
From this single song, Truetone ringtones have grown to include “Singtones.” This karaoke-style ringtone allows anyone to mix their own customized sound clip that includes their own voice to any number of background songs. Whether you’d like to pretend you’re Lady GaGa, Rhianna, or Justin Bieber, everyone will know just as soon as your phone rings.
Cell Phone or Entertainment Center?
Timeframe: 2002 to Current
Even before everyone had a smartphone, cell-phone manufacturers realized they had to keep offering new features to drive sales. Because MP3-based ringtones were so popular, cell-phone makers realized that adding a music player to these phones would be desirable.
Now, with numerous apps available to manage a music collection, or stream online music directly to the phone, dedicated MP3 players may be on their way out just like landline phones. From crappy little chirps to a pocket-sized entertainment center in a little over 15 years—not too shabby!
Timeframe: 2005 to Current
After the Napster fiasco, you didn’t think ringtones would avoid a healthy dose of courtroom action, did you? The ringtone industry has been sued by both the general public and the entertainers themselves.
Several lawsuits, including one in 2005 against Jamster, and one in 2007 against Simon and Schuster, were brought by typical users who were fed up with these ringtone giant’s allegedly deceptive practices. They would offer a free ringtone to unsuspecting users, and then reel them in with repeating charges they never realized they agreed to pay.
Rob Zombie took a page from Metallica (they were the most famous band in the P2P battle that eventually closed Napster) and sued Universal Music Group for not paying him his fair share of downloaded ringtones created from his music. Although fellow musician Eminem prevailed in a similar case, Rob’s case is still pending as of May 2011.
Rob Zombie should make as much as Universal for his work, but what about this lawsuit? ASCAP, a UK-based music licensing company, wants the courts to decide that every time your phone rings, it’s a public performance—kind of like a mini concert. Luckily, they don’t want you to pay—they want cell-phone provider to foot the bill.
Next time you get all bent out of shape because you have to pay the tunes store another 99 cents to create a ringtone out of a song you’ve already bought, thank Rob, Eminem, and ASCAP.
From ringtones that mimic the sounds of the finest symphony orchestra to recordings that make your phone sound like it’s had one too many (you’d never do that), the number of ways to tell the world your phone is ringing continues to grow.
Of course, one popular trend is somewhat of a backlash against the ringtone revolution: many cell-phone users now simply use the retro sounds of an old-fashioned ringing phone instead of the higher-tech options.