The Wonderful World Of Ringtones

The promise of wireless content is that of future profits and certainly not near term viability. As an entree to the supposed ‘explosion’ it is useful to examine the humble market for ringtones.

Customised ringtones – the bane of all bus travelers — have enjoyed tremendous uptake both locally and across the globe. Indeed, according to an analysis of searches on Yahoo! Australia, the interest has accelerated in the past few months. In April of this year, ring tones was in the top 75 search topics. By May it was in the top 50 and last month rocketed into the top 25.

On the back of this demand, Yahoo! Australia launched their Mobile Portal earlier this week. Ringtones, icons and picture messages can be downloaded for a nominal fee. The ringtone offering is in partnership with wireless data services company iTouch.

iTouch, backed by Independent News & Media, has signed agreements with other major distribution partners – namely Vodafone and ninemsn. In a similar deal to the Yahoo! transaction, iTouch provides the technical capability and ringtone catalogue and the portal partners provide the marketing and distribution of them.

The payment model for ringtones is interesting in leu of yesterday’s column on paid content. Mobile phone users first browse the online catalogue of ringtones and sample the tunes. After noting down an ID number, they then call a 1900 number that is charged at $3.25/minute and key in the appropriate data.

Thus far, micropayments on the Web have largely failed. For transactions in the order of a few dollars, credit card processing is simply not an option for merchants. Proprietary formats, such as digicash and beenz have also failed to gain significant traction. A reliable legacy system then, such as the 1900 telephone lines, provides an ideal alternative.

The hugely successful – in terms of audience ratings — Big Brother has also engaged iTouch and its micro payment processing engine to tally the online votes for characters up for eviction. Avid watchers purchase blocks of credits on the Big Brother site by ringing a 1900 number which then charges the appropriate amount from their phone bill.

As the market for ringtones has increased so has the number of legal concerns. According to Matthew Courtney, of Nokia, “every reproduction of a musical excerpt involves payment of copyright fees to the copyright owner.” In many cases, ringtone resellers do not pay royalties on artist ringtones. In some senses this is worse than Napster, who at least did not profit from its members unscrupulous tune swapping.

It seems the ramifications of ringtone popularity are not limited to legal concerns, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds releasing the results of a study it conducted. It found that in the UK, a variety of birds have taken to mimicking ringtones. Not only that, but the birds use the sweet Nokia melodies solely to woo members of the opposite sex. Moreover, in Denmark similar studies have revealed that the ‘musical vocabulary’ of birds has dramatically increased with the adoption of ringtones.

Perhaps a ‘world without wires’ is not that enticing after all.

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