Name that ringtone

by Dan O'Shea

Like reality TV and people who insist on fully reclining their airplane seats, musical ringtones continue to thrive despite my silent curses. In fact, the market is huge - ringtones are a $1 billion global business, and the songwriters who collect copyright fees from the ringtone sellers took in about $71 million last year. Hopefully, the growing user base sleeps a bit better at night knowing it put a few more Benjamins in P. Diddy's pocket.

Companies like Modtones and Soundbuzz count musical ringtone downloads as an important revenue-gainer for their businesses. Also, dotPhoto has created Blabtones to run on Qualcomm's BREW platform, a runtime environment used by several major carriers. There are literally dozens of other companies offering ringtone downloads from their Web sites. To name them all would leave very little space to complain about them.

The benefits of the musical ringtone are varied. Your favorite tune is meant to distinguish your ring from the cacophony of other rings that might simultaneously chirp at any given time. Different ringtones assigned to calls from different people are supposed to help you decide with whom you really want to talk. According to several ringtone sellers, they are also intended to reflect your personality. That just makes musical ringtones another form of mobile phone pretension. If I'm on a bus and I suddenly hear a complete stranger's mobile phone ring out with the theme from "Three's Company" - well, that's just too much information, too soon.

Ironically, musical ringtones are hitting it big at a time when there seems to be a growing backlash against the intrusiveness of mobile phones and the etiquette of public usage. In a country where mobile phone usage and smoking seem to be banned in more places than handguns, you'd think that setting mobile ringers on vibrate mode would be almost mandatory.

But so far, the number of people who allow their ringtones to speak for them has shown no sign of shrinking. For its part, technology also refuses to yield any ground. In fact, among the latest advances in ringtone technology, SSEYO offers a Ringtone Remixer engine featuring a DJ Spuddy application (no, really) that can further personalize otherwise licensed ringtone audio. Also, video images are coming into play, so that you can put a caller's face with the ring - or, say, match a call from your boss with a photo of a West African honey badger.

So caveat emptor, baby - this stuff is getting more and more obnoxious, and if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem. Maybe complaining sounds anti-technology, but really, I think mobile technology should continue to advance, even to the point where mini-mobile phones could be surgically implanted behind our ears and wired to our brains. That way, the only musical ringtones any of us will hear will be in our heads - where they should be.