Posted By Paul Kafasis on November 4th, 2008
Last week, we released Fission 1.6, which includes the ability to quickly and easily save a song as a ringtone for the iPhone. This update leverages the code we’ve used in our free MakeiPhoneRingtone, but while MakeiPhoneRingtone requires an AAC file as the source, Fission works with any audio file, automatically converting to AAC as needed. This is a great little feature that I use all the time, and I’m happy we’ve now streamlined it so it can all be handled inside of Fission. This update to Fission got me thinking about ringtones for the first time in quite a while.
Apple first announced custom ringtones for the iPhone back in September of 2007, at their The Beat Goes On special event which also introduced the iPod Touch and Wi-Fi Music Store. A good few minutes were devoted to showing off custom ringtones, as previously, there was no authorized way to get custom ringtones onto the iPhone.
Since then, however, I’m not aware of Apple ever talking about custom ringtones again. There’ve been no mentions in keynotes, earnings calls, or anything along those lines. This isn’t all that unusual, as Apple doesn’t always break down specific sales. If something is successful, however, they often tout it as they did with 5 billion songs sold in the iTunes store.
More interesting than just a lack of mentions is just how hard it is to find any mention of custom ringtones on Apple’s pages. For something that was both much desired and touted in a media event, it’s nearly invisible on Apple.com. I found just two mentions, on the iTunes features page and on the iPhone iTunes page. It’s this second one that I find most revealing. It reads:
Create your unique ringtone from more than half a million songs on the iTunes Store. Buy a song for 99¢. Turn it into a custom ringtone for another 99¢. At $1.98, that’s still less than most ringtones sold elsewhere. The ringtone is entirely your creation. And the song is yours to keep.”
This is marketing copy, which ought to promote any feature as the greatest thing since sliced bread. And yet look at that statement: “At $1.98, that’s still less than most ringtones sold elsewhere”. It practically says “Hey, we know $1.98 is a ridiculous price, especially since you already own the song and this should be fair use. But $1.98 is less of a rip-off than most places!”. Heck, if it did say that, it’d be perfectly accurate.
As John Gruber said when he and I discussed this, “Shame seeps through”, even in the marketing copy. It’s obvious that iTunes-based custom ringtones just aren’t something of which Apple is proud. This is something Apple had to go through the record industry to do (who want to create a separate, incredibly profitable category for ringtones which has no basis in reality), and because of this, they couldn’t do it right. Thus, the whole thing gets cast aside.
I find this whole saga fascinating. Apple clearly knew people wanted custom ringtones, as they added it within weeks of releasing the iPhone. But they don’t seem to have much interest in the business of charging for ringtones via the iTunes store. Within days, loopholes were discovered to get non-iTunes songs on there. iTunes was updated several times with inept attempts to patch this, and the loopholes were quickly updated as well (MakeiPhoneRingtone 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3). Finally, GarageBand was updated to add ringtone support, lending legitimacy to the idea of non-iTunes based custom ringtones.
Since then, there have been no changes to ringtones. The GarageBand update seems to signal a quiet end to the conflict, and we’re confident that the ringtone support in Fission will work just fine for the foreseeable future. What’s interesting to me is seeing that ultimately, Apple has done the right thing by allowing any audio to be a custom ringtone, even though they’ve never formally announced anything.