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Put a Ring on It

With the help of video and social networking features, a new company hopes to revive the ringtone.

Author Alyssa Giacobbe Illustration Quickhoney

IN THE MOBILE GENERATION’S coming of age, the ringtone was an early expression of self. A little dose of “Heya!” hinted at the buttoned-up businesswoman’s wild side. It was an easy icebreaker, a means of reinvention and, as the music industry will fondly recall, nearly a billion-dollar business.

For a while, ringtones were charming. But as technology advanced and the market grew, so did the opportunity for overkill—especially when one’s cell, left in a coat pocket, wound up serenading the office with the latest Black Eyed Peas megahit. In 2008, ringtone sales were down 24 percent from the previous year, when Americans shelled out $714 million for their phones to ring out the jams.

Can the ringtone be saved? Vringo, a New York–based start-up, is banking on it. Its plan is to bring social media, video and more targeted personalization to the business, which once made up 80 percent of the mobile phone music market. The killer innovation? Instead of downloading ringtones to your own phone, Vringo’s software allows you to choose the ring that will play on the phones you call. Better yet, you can send video as well—be it a clip downloaded from the internet or one you recorded yourself. There’s just one catch: Both phones must have the program installed.

Founded in 2006, Vringo hopes to become the Facebook or Twitter of ringtones by bringing the ever-popular social networking aspects of those sites to cell phones. “The ringtone died because no one was showing consumers what to do with it,” says Ross Neumann, Vringo’s content manager. “We make it possible to update your friends on how you’re feeling and give your call context. Are you happy? Sad? Just broken up with? It enriches the experience.”

And it allows you to better screen your calls. Has your ex changed his or her Vringo ringtone to “Baby Come Back”? Better let that go to voicemail.

Vringo is currently seeking partnerships with mobile carriers to offer the service through calling plans and already has several deals in place in the Middle East and Asia. Earlier this year it began the process of filing for an initial public offering, with hopes of raising up to $13.8 million. For now, the revenues are miniscule (just $36,000 in 2008 and 2009), and Vringo’s success is anything but certain. Still, Neumann, whose friends hear Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” when he calls, is not deterred. “People don’t use their phones to communicate their personalities,” he says. “We’re hoping to bring back that connection.”

ALYSSA GIACOBBE still thinks her Guns N’ Roses ringtone is charming.

LORDS OF THE RING

Ringtone sales were down in 2008, but they still brought in more than half a billion dollars from the world’s five largest markets.

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