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Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Ringtone Timeline
No one likes my novelty ringtone, an audio recording of a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface.
Title text: No one likes my novelty ringtone, an audio recording of a phone on vibrate sitting on a hard surface.

Explanation

Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: Created by a COOL SPACE BEEP. Please mention here why this explanation isn't complete. Do NOT delete this tag too soon.

After the telephone was invented, a way of indicating when a call was coming through was needed. Special voltages sent through the line were used to activate a physical bell on the other end, leading to what we recognize as a phone ringing sound, and that method of generating sound persisted for quite some time, even when new methods of detecting and generating ringing sounds were developed.

Eventually, however, people realized they were no longer confined to the traditional bell ringing sound, as computers became more and more involved with the telephone process, and variations of bell-type sounds were introduced, often sounding like spaceship sounds from sci-fi movies. Probably the most iconic "cool space beeps" are the chirps from the communicators from Star Trek (which themselves resemble flip-phones in style). Another common ringtone was the Nokia tune.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, actual songs, or song snippets were able to be used as a ringing sound. It became common to record song snippets from the radio, or to use song MP3 files as ringtones. Many of these songs are grating to hear, and also a social faux pas if they sound in theatres or other listening venues. As an example, this Geico ad featuring bad ringtones, including "the worst ringtone [the Geico gecko has] ever heard", came out around the end of the "song and novelty ringtone" period (according to Randall's periodization).

As people got sick of that, they reverted to use the default ring tone, a spaceship / computer sound, although this time often of higher quality and more melodious in nature. Nowadays, there are more people electing to use a more traditional ringing sound, both as the novelty has worn off, and possibly also as an ironic statement about ringtones. Randall (in the person of Cueball) made a statement like this in 479: Tones in 2008, which according to his reckoning was in the waning years of the novelty ringtone epoch.

The final stage the comic is pointing to is do away with traditional sound entirely, and going with the vibrate mode most portable phones have; what little sound there is is more of a low rumbling sound. Using this setting is common for schools, workplaces, or churches, as it can be disruptive to have a phone ring in a public place. Some users have chosen to always set their phones to the vibrate setting, to avoid having to change their ringing settings back and forth. Randall claims that vibrate mode is the "final victory" over ringtones, which he apparently dislikes.

In the title text, Randall ironically uses a "novelty ringtone" which is an audio recording of a phone vibrating. This would sound like a phone on vibrate mode, but his actual phone is not vibrating, and is actually producing a "ringing" sound. However, if the original phone was vibrating on a hard surface (as opposed to in a pocket, muffled by fabric), the sound would be much louder and more grating. A recording of that sound, played as an audio ringtone, would go back to being annoying again.

Transcript

Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.
[A horizontal timeline spanning between the years 1875 and 2022. Every year is indicated by a tick below the line, and labeled every 5 years. There is a gap between 1883 and 1989 with jagged lines to indicate a jump in time. 7 sections are labeled on the chart, with 5 of them grouped in blocks:]
[1875:]
Telephone ringer invented
[1878-1883:]
Normal ringing sounds
[Gap and jagged lines to indicate jump in time from 1883 to 1989]
[1989-1996:]
Normal ringing sounds
[1996-2003:]
Cool space beeps
[2003-2009:]
Song and novelty ringtones
[2009-2013:]
Cool space beeps
[2013-2019:]
Normal ringing sounds
[2020:]
Everyone sets their phones to vibrate
[Caption below the panel:]
After 140 years, humanity is finally on the verge of winning the war against ringtones.


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