Lord of the Ring(tones) A Brief History of the Ringtone

by Saul Edmonds
Lord of the ringtones-web.jpg

Ringtones - the expression of individuation by sound and cell

Ringtones are omnipresent element of our life.

The call of mobiles are everywhere you go.

Many consider the choice of a ringtone to be important when customising their phone. But - when did the concept arise to customise what had hitherto been standardised? (Note that the historic “ring  ring” of a landline telephone results from an electric current generated by the switch or exchange to which the telephone is connected. The mobile phone is in effect a two way radio, where the voice is converted into radio waves and sent to a nearby base station for wider transmission.)

When did innovation and creativity :

fly without wings

into telephone rings?

The Early Years

- May 1996

The first mobile phone was released with monophonic customisable ringtones: the Japanese NTT DoCoMo Digital Mova N103 Hyper by NEC. (It had a few preset songs in MIDI format.)

- September 1996

Digital Minimo D319 by Denso became available. This was the first mobile phone where a user could input original tunes -  not just presets.These phones were a huge hit in Japan: consider - a book published in 1998 providing info on how to customise ringtones to play popular tunes sold more than 3.5 million copies.

- 1998

Radiolinja - a Finnish mobile operator now known as Elisa - started a service called Harmonium. This was the first downloadable mobile ringtone service. Monophonic ringtones, where a single note plays at a time, were delivered via sms.

- 2001

Nokia 3510 was the first phone designed to utilise polyphonic ring tones. Other phone companies adopted the MIDI standard and polyphonic sounds - where multiple sounds can play at once - soon became the standard.

- 2004

Realtones (also truetones, mastertones) which play ‘real’ music - as opposed to midi imitations - were integrated firstly into Nokia at this time. This first format was AMR-WB, which effectively allowed an excerpt from the original recording to be used as a ringtone. 

The AMR format has been since replaced by ringtones that use the same format as full track downloads - MP3, AAC, or WMA. For example, the iphone uses the same format for ringtones (AAC) as it uses for tracks sold in itunes.

- 2005

All major mobile companies incorporated MP3 players into their handsets. (Although the first MP3 players were incorporated as early as 2001.) Today, more than half of all mobile phones in the world have an MP3 player. An interesting historical note is that Ricky Martin was the first artist to sell songs as MP3 file downloads directly to mobile phones.

by Saul Edmonds