How the Custom Ringtone Industry Paved the Way for the App Store — and Then Vanished
Before the iPhone, Venmo, or Spotify, there were ringtones. You might remember them fondly as those lo-fidelity sounds we used to communicate our highly refined music tastes every time someone called our cell. But ringtones were so much more than that. A billion-dollar industry silenced seemingly overnight, ringtones laid the foundations of modern mobile consumer technology and set the stage for the app store and mobile commerce as we know it today. And they are proof that even silly-seeming products can have an impact long after their memory fades away.
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The rise of the ringtone
The first mobile phone call was not made by a silk-shirted Miami cocaine dealer in the ’80s, but by a driver in St. Louis in 1946 from a heavyweight wireless system installed in an automobile. It took another 40 years to make mobile phones portable, reliable, and affordable enough (relatively speaking) to offer to the mainstream consumer.
Even then, cellphones didn’t quite go “mainstream.” A common reaction in the 1980s was: Wow, that’s slick (it being the ’80s and all), quickly followed up with but, like, who really needs a portable phone? The president… maybe? At the time, it was hard for ordinary people to imagine having to be reachable at any minute of the day.
It wasn’t until the ’90s that owning a cellphone became relatively commonplace. But then another problem reared its head. In the early part of the decade, phones came with preset, annoying, monophonic ringtones. Never ones to miss an opportunity to spend R&D dollars on minor inconveniences, the telcos manufactured a feature that allowed users to input custom ringtones. The Digital Minimo D319, released in 1996, was a Japanese-made device on which users could program custom ringtones by entering combinations of boops and beeps associated with keys on the number pad.