Watch Your Tone

Ringtones began as a novel way for cellular phone users to personalize their incoming calls, but they have rapidly grown into a huge cash generator for musicians and mobile operators seeking to boost revenues. Now, ringtones are the most popular type of content purchased and downloaded onto wireless phones. This is good news to Vernon Irvin.

As executive vice president and general manager of VeriSign Communications Services, Irvin, 44, promotes VeriSign’s Jamster as a strategic choice for mobile carriers seeking a reliable platform for mobile transactions and buying content. “We have the single largest collection of off-portal brands in the world. Our 200,000 titles include full-track music, ringtones, games, and jokes,” says Irvin. Through all of its global operations, Jamster generated approximately $560 million in revenues in 2005. VeriSign, which operates intelligent infrastructure services for the Internet and telecommunications networks, reported revenues of $1.6 billion in 2005, up from $1.1 billion in 2004.

If you want to know where mobile technology is going, just listen to Irvin talk about the future of the content marketplace. “The fastest growing mobile content that’s coming in the next five years isn’t text or ringtones, it is video,” predicts Irvin, who refers to the content as “videotones.” “So when your phone rings, you will be able to hear the tone and see the video of the artist.”

Irvin believes that ringtone sales are poised for significant growth, and industry analysts agree. Revenues, which have been doubling in recent years, are expected to reach $724 million in 2009, according to JupiterResearch, a market research firm that tracks the Internet and emerging consumer technologies.

Ringtones have become big business. Walt Disney Co. announced that its upcoming cell phone service will include Disney ringtones and video clips. In late April, Skype, eBay’s Internet telephone subsidiary, announced a deal with music publishers that will enable users to create audio clips from artists such as Madonna, Green Day, and Red Hot Chili Peppers as ring tones for $1.50 each. In fact, considering less-than-stellar CD sales, ringtones are an industry bright spot, according to Jupiter Research.

Irvin, who has more than 20 years of communications and media experience, held several executive positions at American Management Systems, British Telecommunications, and MCI. Since joining VeriSign in June 2003, the University of Cincinnati graduate has grown the company’s communications business and introduced a range of services to help more than 1,000 global telecommunications carriers, such as Cingular, Sprint, and T-Mobile, leverage new revenue-generating opportunities.

Despite being one of the most popular ringtone distributors, Jamster has attracted its share of criticism. A class-action lawsuit filed in California last year alleges that Jamster’s advertisements implied that consumers would receive a free ringtone if they registered on the company’s Website. But the company allegedly did not adequately disclose that by registering, consumers would be automatically charged fees for monthly services and text message notifications.

Irvin continues to play a pivotal role in taking the Jamster model to media companies to show them how to sell their content through mobile