Ralph Simon: Memeburn talks mobile’s future with the ‘Father of the Ringtone’

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Ralph Simon

Mobile is pretty big right now: it’s where people are innovating and it’s the common denominator device. Gartner predicts that by 2015 there will be more than two-billion smartphones in the world. That’s a lot of smartphones. Tech analysis company Juniper Research says that by 2014 240-million people will be watching television on their smart devices. It’s a space ripe for innovation and of course the entertainment industry is happy to find ways to meet its audiences on whatever device they have.

Mobile entertainment is the next stage in entertainment and it is rapidly growing. Juniper Research also predicts that the industry will see an 80% growth in global revenue from US$36-billion in 2011 to US$65-billion by 2016. It’s an industry worth taking notice of.

That the industry exists in its current for can, at least in part, be credited Ralph Simon, the man regarded as the father of mobile entertainment. Simon co-founded the independent Zomba Group of music companies, which is now a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment.

In 1998 Simon predicted that “mobile phones would become the indispensable voice/social networking and music companion for consumers and their increasing mobile lifestyles.” He worked on convincing United States music publishers to grant the very first ringtone rights. This resulted in the dubbing of Simon as “The Father of the Ringtone.”

Simon believes that mobile entertainment will continue to grow and that content creators will also innovate more around packaging by creating bite sized content for audiences. He reckons the Nigerian film industry is an example of where that innovation is coming from, saying “Nollywood, is starting to make mobile content in bite sized pieces suitable for a pan African audience — something unheard of prior to mobile”.

Simon will be speaking at Tech4Africa this year on the Cellphonification of the world.

Memeburn: How has mobile changed the way we experience entertainment in the last 10 years?
Ralph Simon: Entertainment has gone through a fundamental change since mobile and wireless have democratised access to content. The most significant change, is that everyone has become a “Screenager” — that is, they want to see their content or contact content, at the nearest available screen — be that on a TV screen, a tablet or iPad like device or a mobile smartphone. Time shifted TV programs and favourite viewing patterns can now be flexibly switched to be viewed at the viewer’s discretion — again through the use of their mobile devices. Of course, mobile apps linked to entertainment be it music or TV has also revolutionised the way people “discover” new content

MB:What caused this change?
RS:Technology promoted and advanced the change. As mobile and wireless technology expanded to become more useful to people’s daily lifestyles, so too did the apps and programs to make mobility easy and accessible to all who had a basic wireless device.

MB: What lessons about packaging content have we learnt from mobile?
RS: The biggest lesson is that there is a demand for “bite sized” entertainment. Short form entertainment suitable for a small screen requires expertise and creative know-how. Mobile devices have enabled the spread of viral video in a way never seen before. Take the example of the Korean pop singer, Psy. His “Gangnam Style” video is the most watched ever on You Tube — largely on smaller than TV screens, and the single was number one in the USA and the UK and soon, all over the world, creating a brand new dance style — the fastest dance craze the world has ever experienced.

MB: How successful has mobile TV been in recent years?
RS: Mobile TV has been growing but the growth has been slow, incremental and small. As the new generation of smart phones and low-cost smart phones emerges, so too then will there be a pick up in mobile TV watching other than as catch up TV. Also, new programming forms for mobile TV including a gamification element will continue to make an impact in the coming 18 months.

MB: Can we still consider mobile TV the “new frontier” of digital entertainment?
RS: The new frontier of digital entertainment is social media and social networks. Tastes, trends, styles and artists will all see their popularity genesis be shaped by the crows sourced interest waves. If Amanda Palmer, the American artist, can raise US$1.2-million US for her next album from the Kickstarter site and her fans world-wide, its clear that Facebook, Twitter and at a professional level, LinkedIn, are the vectors that are the new frontiers. Entertainment is a very useful additive to this social mix.

MB: Will mobile manufactures innovate more toward entertainment in the future?
RS: Mobile device manufacturers will continue to have entertainment as a feature of their devices and always add in compelling games on their built-in deck of the device — such as Angry Birds or Bad Piggies from Rovio, the Finnish games company. The key with device makers is to ensure easy to use social media tools, apps, platforms that facilitate all aspects of social usage — be it mobile commerce and banking, education, local government services, TV for small scree, professional training, and many more — of course, the emerging area of mobile health and wellness is also going to impact.

MB: With so many smartphones out there, and feature phones capable of playing MP3s, why does there still seem to be a market for ringtones?
RS: The market for ring tones has declined considerably. However, in its place and vastly outselling ring tones and most other content formats, is the caller ring back tone. CRBTs, as they are known, is now the most dominant form of mobile music entertainment world-wide. In Africa, it is especially significant as it is the most important format for mobile for African mobile subscribers. Next most popular is mobile games — 55% women and 45% men play mobile games. Of course, voice and texting and email remain the top trio!

MB: What are some of the best mobile entertainment innovations you’ve seen come from Africa and emerging markets regions?
RS: The best innovation that is now leading the world is Mobile Money. Mpesa, the Kenyan offshoot of Safaricom, pioneered this when CEO Michael Joseph had the vision and saw the potential for getting the unbanked, banked. Mobile commerce has vigorously followed and now there are a number of competitors to Mpesa in the form of Fundamo, MTN Money, Airtel Money to name a few.

MB: Do you think emerging market countries have a leap on the rest of the world when it comes to mobile entertainment?
RS: The BRICS countries — and Africa in particular is at an historic moment in time where the mobile growth and mobile device usage is at a tipping point for the betterment of the continent. New forms of mobile entertainment are being created with greater consistency than ever before.

The Nigerian movie industry, Nollywood, is starting to make mobile content in bite sized pieces suitable for a pan African audience — something unheard of prior to mobile. A company in New York called GlocalVocal has a special dubbing and translation platform that allows an artist singing in say, Xhosa or Zulu, to have their words digitally dubbed and translated into say, Swahili or Yoruba, and in doing so make South African content suitable for Nigeria or Kenya. This is going to bring in a whole new era of language content cross-pollination in Africa, and for the first time seeing artists develop a pan-African rather than just their own country, following.

MB: What, if any, impact do you think the flood of cheap smartphones and tablets is having on the mobile entertainment industry?
RS: The emergence of low-cost smart phones is going to raise the demand for music video and educational videos. The big issue is going to be to find a way that data costs to the pay as you go African subscriber can be kept very very low — this will be the best way of stimulating the continued growth and demand for mobile entertainment in Southern Africa and pan-Africa.

Image: Music please

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