How Thomas Dolby helped create the first polyphonic ringtones

Here's a piece of tech history that was new to me: Apparently Thomas Dolby played a crucial role in the development of the first polyphonic ringtones.

Tedium has a great piece on the history of ringtones; it goes back to 1902 — when the Spanish guitarist Francisco Tárrega composed "Gran Vals," decades later the inspiration for the "Nokia Tune" ringtone — and delves into the fascinating 1960s/70s fights over the deregulation of the telephone industry, which made it possible for third parties to create customized phone-ringers, and thus, eventually, ringtones.

But then Dolby enters the picture. It turns out that in addition to being a superb musician and songwriter he ran a software firm …

As Dolby noted in a 2005 interview with The A.V. Club, he stumbled into the ringtone space because of a piece of software his company, Beatnik, had created. The technology was intended as a website plugin not unlike Flash or Java, but it checked off most of the marks for working in simplistic cell phones.

"When the whole dot-com crash happened, what Beatnik was left with that wasn't a bunch of fluff was a contract with Nokia, who were looking to put polyphonic ringtones into phones," Dolby explained to the news outlet. "Sort of by accident, the requirements for Web audio-software technology were not that dissimilar to what Nokia needed, because we'd made a software-based audio engine that could be downloaded very quickly and used files like MIDI files, but which had good fidelity because they could include actual samples of recordings."

Beatnik's strategy was effective because of how it worked—it was a software solution to a problem that other cell phone makers were trying to solve with hardware chips that cost a lot of money. Nokia, which used monophonic sounds previously, was looking to add more layers of depth to the tones coming out.

Dolby's solution was so effective that every major cell phone company of the pre-smartphone era licensed the software after Nokia had success with it.

(CC-licensed photo of Dolby via Wikimedia)