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RealNetworks offers customised ringback tone app called 'Listen'

RealNetworks are a long standing company who have most recently launched a new App called Listen that allows users to customise their ringback tones, the sound that a caller receives down the line when they are waiting for a call to be answered. On the face of it, this might appear to be a bit of a gimmick with no place within business but we’ll talk about the possible applications within business for promotional messages and revenue generation.

Richard Jackson, Muzicall founder and VP of Sales at RealNetworks is here to tell us more.

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First of all Richard, for those who might not be familiar with the relationship between Muzicall and RealNetworks, give us the background story?

RealNetworks has been around for many years. Basically if you have ever watched a video on a PC you have used one of their products called Realplayer and they were the inventor of streaming video services for the Internet. An entrepreneur called Robert Glaser founded it and he is still our interim CEO based over in Seattle. They have expanded worldwide into music services, streaming services and part of that remit was the mobile entertainment division, which is where you will find me. We are responsible for music mobile service that we offer through mobile operators. They recently purchased my company called Muzicall back in July here in the UK so Muzicall has been amalgamated into RealNetworks. What we were doing is a very strong focus on ring back tones in Europe and Realnetworks also do that so we compliment each other very well.

Starting with the basics then, explain what a ring back tone is and how you’re able to use it?

The ring back tone is the sound you hear in your ear when you call somebody on a telephone before the call is answered. Typically in this country in the UK it is a “burr burr” sound which is called an ITU ring back tone very technical, very boring and it has been around ever since the telephone was invented to basically tell somebody who is making a phone call that something is happening at the other end rather than just dead silences. What a ring back tone service does, is offer the ability for people to change that “burr burr” sound for anything they want it to be. It is just an audio signal; therefore you can change it to music or to messages or greetings or whatever you want.

We’ll talk in detail about the features of the ‘Listen’ app and how they can be applied to business but primarily what is the target market for this sort of technology?

The market is basically anybody with a mobile phone so this is very much a mobile service, not a landline service. Typically a ring back tone is seen as a personalisation service so it is a way of personalising your mobile phone to another level so as people call you, you can share music that you love with your friends and with your colleagues and with your family. It is a personalization service appealing to the teens - late 20’s market for music but we do have users who are outside of those brackets using it as well.

The worldwide market today is about 4 billion dollars for revenue for mobile operators for ring back tone services but I think that is the tip of the iceberg as to where we have got with it so far. The service has been around for about 10 years so some would say why has it not taken off and I think the reason for that is that what makes it work is quite technical behind the scenes and therefore to make it activate and to switch it on and off is quite difficult. Whereas phones in the past were not very user friendly for those types of services, obviously Smartphones make the user interface very easy, very intuitive with pictures, colour and everything you want. RealNetworks has come up with a product which basically allows the user to control this service much, much more easily than it the past and we have called it “Listen.”

Well of course we have alluded to the fact that there is more to it than simply paying music instead of tones how about some of the more advanced options that this offers?

It is in a sense like a sort of virtual switchboard. It is an App that allows you to manage your mobile phone’s inbound calls so obviously for people that call you a lot and your family and friends it can be doing certain types of music, for example. For your work colleagues it can be play status messages such as “I am in a meeting” etc and there are other abilities to set up like special holidays so you could set up on St Georges’ day you could play the national anthem , on Valentine’s Day you could play a special message to the person that is close to you and for your family you can put in automatic birthdays so even if you forget your mother’s birthday, when she phones you to tick you off she gets the automatic happy birthday message played to her!

Presumably you don’t want to answer your phone too quickly if you’ve added this customisation service?

You are right the service stops the moment you press the button to connect the call but having been offering ring back tone services for many years here in the UK and across Europe typically the average play time is about 10 seconds. Also most calls go to voicemail after 20 seconds so the typical play time for the ring back tone is 10 seconds in the UK. We have got years of historical data to prove that so as much as you may make a phone call and you start hearing the ring back tone there are sometimes very small delays before the mobile phone you are calling starts to vibrate or ring so typically you have heard 4 rings in your ear before the person answers the phone.

Describe then in a little more detail the process I would go through to sign up to this service and how does it work with my phone to achieve the ring back tone customisations?

Basically you download the App from Google play or the Apple store. The App is free to download and the first thing the App does is starts interrogating the call log on your phone to actually understand who the people are that call you the most. Then it suggests through an intuitive screen of pictures and icons whether you want to set something up for those individuals and it also has an ability to look at the type of music you have within your phone and then suggest and take you to the store front to actually purchase additional music to play to your callers based upon the taste in music that is sitting on the phone.

Once you have got that, there is a widget within that as people call you, their picture pops up on the screen and it clearly shows you what you are playing to them and then you answer the call. There are also lots of features to allow people to select what they want to hear from your service. There is a service called let them choose, let them select and you can actually send messages to your contacts to inform them that you have set up X, Y and Z up for them when they call you. So it is an intuitive, easy to use service. Typically ring back tones over the years are a service you set up and you usually forget you have got it. What listen does is it constantly reminds you that you have this service so it is easy therefore to personalize and change and adjust what you have set up. Therefore this service becomes a sort of front running service that you are aware is running on your phone on a daily basis.

What sort of controls or freedom does the user have over the audio they can use on those ring back tones?

These pieces of audio are not stored on your phone they are actually stored on the mobile operators network. From a music perspective there are no digital rights that can be infringed because people cannot cannibalise it or re-use it because it is never delivered to the phone. The other angle is that the mobile operators are actually having a serious amount of control over this service as a value added service they can market and sell to their clients. This prevents users from side lining the mobile operators for ring tone revenue. Ring back time revenue has got to go through the mobile operator so therefore it is great opportunity for a mobile operator to partner with RealNetworks to gain revenue for a service that is very much mobile focused.

Obviously this has real appeal has a fashionable gadget for consumer mobile phone users. But how about business applications, is this being used for commercial messaging promotions and those kind of messages and how can business potentially use this as an income stream?

Yes and over the past we have done some trials with not just only commercial messages whereby commercial organizations personalize their mobile phones for promotional activities we have also run some advertising trials where people endorse brands based upon a revenue share with a brand to endorse brands and use a promotional tool. When you look at the numbers if you take worldwide there are about 18 billion inbound mobile calls every single day. If you take that average of 10 seconds what you have got there is about 2 billion minutes every single day that today is uncapped audio inventory and if you think of commercial radio you think of internet radio and how they have a monetizing revenue model and look at 2 billion minutes which somebody told me the other day was 388 years. You have 388 years of time every single day going to waste therefore yes it can be used for commercial usage and it can be used to brand endorse, advertise and it can be used to play music and it can be used to play ring tones the ring back tone that you hear today. It is the choices as subscribers as to what they want to do with it.

On the face of it this looks like a bit of fun but underneath lurks some quite powerful business uses as well. Is it difficult to get an app noticed in such a saturated market? How do you get people to understand and buy in to an App given the huge range of choice available?

It is difficult because today how do people sell let apps usually it is through word of mouth, people say oh have you seen this latest app so therefore obviously one thing this does is when you call somebody and somebody hears music they say how did you get that that’s cool and therefore itself promotes itself and I suppose it is an overused term getting it to go viral like a video on Utube is usually what you want it to do but what we do is we do advertising through mobile channels whether they be in centre channels or a thousand channels to basically to market and promote the service with special pieces of music , people click on the banners , they can download the app for free and they can use it on a free trial for 30 days to see if they like it and if they don’t like it then they pay nothing but if they want to keep the service then they pay £2.49 per month to have the ability to play as many messages as they like to their inbound callers. As much as you go back to the ring tone market where £2.40 per month was certainly not the revenue model that the ring tone market had but that is the revenue for the ring back tone market.