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Making the call as silly as the ring tone

PhoneBites' cellular service inserts sound clips into conversations. Ridiculous? The same was said of the multibillion-dollar ring tone market.

Start-up PhoneBites is answering the call for the next popular cellular entertainment service after ring tones, and its initial success may hang on the public's appetite for making fun of the president.

The San Francisco-based company this week launched its Razz technology, which enables cell phone owners to interject witty--more often just silly--sound clips into their conversations. The clips are packaged together and can be downloaded to a few advanced phones for about $2. During a call, a Razz user presses a button, and a clip is played.

The first group of clips is timely. It includes Halloween sounds and what the company calls Bushisms--clips of unflattering statements President Bush has said. PhoneBites is also working on clips from the crank-calling Jerky Boys.

PhoneBites is cultivating a category of personalization applications for cell phones that are the result of the success of ring tones, according to Jeff Kirschner, co-founder and vice president of marketing. Other applications include games, ringback tones and, on the more advanced end, streaming video.

"Ring tones were the catalyst, and they have made a lot of money," Kirschner said. "Razz is a new category and answers what operators have been asking for--content with a degree of personalization... They've been asking what's next, and this gives them something ring tones don't--they were not that customized or not that interactive."

Kirschner is right that ring tones have made a lot of money; how much depends on whom you talk to, but most agree that it's a multibillion-dollar global business. However, they've had less impact in the United States, where In-Stat/MDR analyst Clint Wheelock says they accounted for about $75 million in sales in 2003. Sales are picking up--this year, revenue is expected to hit $146 million--but are still far less than in other parts of the world.

A service like Razz may be limited initially, but there is potential, according to Wheelock, particularly if other companies begin offering similar products.

"This is a very specialized feature, and they're appealing to a niche within a niche, but as more content becomes available, those segments can become more significant," Wheelock said.

For Razz to grow, it will also need to be available on more phones. Right now, the service can only be used with certain Nokia phones--the 3650, 6600 and N-Gage models. The sound clips and client application are loaded to the phones from a PC over a Bluetooth or infrared connection or over the air from the carrier.

"Frankly, this is a silly idea," Kirschner said, "but it takes advantage of the key feature of phones--conversations."