Pops steps up its pitch to put your phone alerts on steroids

If you, like most smartphone wielding, GigaOM-reading information addicts, spend all day twitchily looking at your phone to see whether any new messages have come in, then let me introduce you to Pops, a notification service that you will either love or hate.

Last time I wrote about the Israeli startup, I said that Pops was producing the next generation of personalized ringtones, like Crazy Frog. But here’s another way of explaining what it does: Pops gives notifications an injection that makes them bigger and more brash than ever before.

Here’s the basic idea: Instead of simply getting a little alert box on your screen when a new message comes in, running Pops means you can get pretty much anything you like — a custom animation, a video, a piece of music, or some artwork. And that’s it. The alert comes in on your Android (s GOOG) handset screen in place of the normal alert and you carry on as normal.

Since launching last year, Pops has seen more than 500,000 downloads. Now the company, which raised $1.5 million from Skype investor Mangrove Capital earlier this year, is stepping things up with a new web service, a tweaked service and a fresh Android (s GOOG) app to boot.

“Until now, it was really an alpha,” co-founder and CEO Yaron Orenstein told me over the phone earlier. “We learned a lot in the last 10 months… and one of the biggest things we’ve learned is that notifications are really big. We see the adoption really growing fast.”

A fine line

There was another big lesson, though — and one that was probably more important in the long run: Pops have the potential to be really, really annoying. The average Pops user, Orenstein says, receives between 10 and 15 of their custom notifications each day, but heavy users get as many as 70. Without any sort of filter, it’s easy to imagine that becoming a nightmare rather than a bit of fun, and as a result the company has introduced some limitations on the way Pops work.

Now, instead of assigning Pops to a service like Twitter or Facebook (s FB), they are assigned to people. That means less danger that you’re going to get spammed when your phone starts heating up with activity, and emphasizes the personal connections between Pops users.

“We analyzed it and found that people really care about 15-20 people — their family, parents, kids, good friends and a few colleagues,” he says. “Now Pops is much more intimate… and it enables us to filter the noise.”

The numbers are looking pretty strong, although it’s hard to tell how many users are really driving usage. Around 1 million Pops are being sent each day, says Orenstein.

A little bit of rough-around-the-edges math suggests that version 1 of Pops has an active user base in the region of 50,000 people, but he remains coy on the actual numbers. He does, however, point out that its service is developing more and more into a kind of messaging system in its own right: especially now that users can send each other Pops in their own right, sort of like a souped-up version of MMS that plays instantly on the home screen rather than requiring a user to open it up.

This is all intriguing, but what’s most interesting — at least to me — is the longer-term vision for Pops as a really customizable, personalized alert service.

Orenstein’s small team have been working on building a marketplace that lets people create and distribute their own Pops (an app store within an app, really) as well as negotiating with record labels, movie studios and other content publishers to create branded alerts that can be given away or bought inside the service. There are a couple in the offing that could make a serious impact, both in terms of how the app is distributed and what Pops are on offer (watch this space, says Orenstein).

That’s interesting because it could position Pops as a media channel in its own, slightly strange, right. And while it’s Android only for now — and unlikely to ever hit the iPhone (s AAPL) given the level of access to your phone’s services that it requires — that’s a big market that could really work. Sure, it might annoy older users, but I can see it really taking off with younger, phone-obsessed types… if it carries on growing.