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If you're older than 30, you may have never heard of a video ringtone, but companies like Watchtones and Jamster have been offering premium video content for specific cellphone models for at least two years. Short videos - from bands to movie clips and animated tidbits to homespun snippets - are readily available for cellphone users to download or make, usually for a price.
But Vringo, a company that allows users to create and share their own video ringtones, is offering something that no one else has. Instead of the traditional system in which the receiver of the call dictates which ringtone to receive, with Vringo, the caller now decides which video to send and share with friends.
"Every time you get a call from your friend or you call your friend, the video that friend has chosen to send you will appear on your screen and the one you've chosen will be sent to them," says Jon Medved, the CEO and founder of Vringo. He notes that the video ringtone sharing requires that both callers be members of Vringo and have cellphones that have video capability.
An experienced venture capitalist and entrepreneur who grew up in California and made aliya in 1991, Medved says that his four children were part of his inspiration. "The generation gap between me and my kids is much larger with cellphones than the Internet, and I spent a lot of time watching them use their cellphones to text and communicate," he says. "They've been great beta testers too." In fact, he says his 13-year-old daughter would probably be the best content manager.
With the goal of being the MySpace of video ringtones, Vringo is providing a personal element to this new trend. And while it may already be obvious that users want video ringtones, it's too early to know whether Vringo will be the next big player in the field.
"This is personalization 2.0," says Medved. "Fifteen percent of the content on the Internet today is user-generated, and what Vringo does is twofold: It makes the personalization media richer and it creates a video ringtone space that is user generated."
Pieces of your personality can now be projected through the video ringtone you choose to send. Think video ringtone meets social networking. Medved says that Vringo will also be integrated with Web sites like Flickr and YouTube, so if you want to upload data you already have there, you can then share it through your cellphone.
On the Vringo Web site, whose slogan reads "show me your Vringo," you can find both licensed content to purchase (like cartoon, movie and TV show clips), some free clips (such as movie trailers and ads) and, of course, the user-generated videos.
The idea for Vringo came to Medved last year on a vacation in Europe. "I was on hold with Hertz staring at a black screen on my cellphone wondering why they weren't entertaining me," he says. But when he started to seriously contemplate the idea, Medved realized that to really be ubiquitous, it must begin with the consumer, not with business-related advertisements. "In order for this to spread virally, it has to start with a locus of coolness."
To achieve that, Medved is hoping that the 50 to 100 top young trendsetters in big cities across the globe will start using Vringo. Since their friends can't receive video without also being signed up, the idea is that it will start to spread.
But beyond the marketing issues and revenue model, which Medved says requires a lot of users to be successful, there are technical matters to overcome. Each cellphone company uses different software, and creating video ringtones that will be compatible with all of them has been a gigantic problem that Medved and the Vringo team have yet to fully resolve.
"It's extremely complicated to support every mobile phone on the market today," he says. "Right now, Vringo supports around 20 phones, and we are slowly expanding that list, but we will eventually need to support hundreds."
For those who may not want to receive Vringbacks - Vringo's term for the video you receive on your phone from a Vringo buddy - polite modes exist to mute or turn them off. Vringforwards, the video ringtone you choose to send the people you call, are activated instead of the previous ringtone on your Vringo buddies' phones once they've installed the software. In addition to digital cameras, Vringo users can share videos recorded on cellphone handsets too.
Rather than trying to send enormous files in real time, Vringos are preloaded onto the cellphones. This makes them much faster. "We know who our Vringo user's friends are, and we have the videos waiting for them to call, so it doesn't take forever to come through," Medved says.
With the successful raising of $12 million from private equity firm Warburg Pincus at the end of July, Medved says plans for international expansion are on the horizon. He adds that execution, timing and technology are key factors, as is a lot of just plain luck.
"It turns out that Vringo is a great idea that is difficult to do," says Medved. "But if it were easy, everyone would be doing it."