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Would You Like Fries With That?: An Overview of Porn's Portable Future

Would You Like Fries With That?: An Overview of Porn's Portable Future

Let's put things in perspective. In the winter of 1973, Xerox unveiled something totally unique: the Alto. At the time, few could imagine a home use for the strange television-and-box combo Xerox was calling a personal computing workstation. The system featured bitmap graphics, a graphical user interface, a word processor with cut-and-paste ability, actual Ethernet connectivity (invented by the techs at Xerox's PARC facility for this system), which allowed file and print sharing, and an odd little pointing tool that looked like a bar of soap with buttons, which the engineers had dubbed a mouse.

The system was never sold, but some 200 of them made their way into Xerox's labs and several universities. In 1981, Xerox released a commercial version, the Star, which was aimed at business use and sold for nearly $17,000. The Star was a financial failure, but a few years later Steve Jobs, who had recognized the potential in the original Alto, had much greater success with his groundbreaking Apple PCs. In 1983, Apple released the Lisa, which had some of the Alto's features, and then, in January of 1984, they released the first Macintosh. When that all-in-one, 8-megahertz system hit the market, most people had never seen anything like it. Later, of course, Windows became the titan of operating systems, because its feet were firmly planted on the shoulders of Xerox's ex-techs.

The Alto was too far ahead of its time to be practical. But those who saw the potential in that first PC were well positioned to take advantage of the revolution in home computing that was begun by Apple, and later redefined by Microsoft.

When Steve Crocker, Robert Shapiro, and the rest of the NWG group at ARPA brought ArpaNet online in 1969 to allow military development collectives at various universities to exchange information more easily, none of them ever conceived that they were laying the groundwork for what has arguably become the single most important advance in the dissemination of information since the printing press. In fact, once the thing was up and running, many members of the team felt they had reached the limits of both the technology and usefulness of what was then called long-line communications. Of course, that same structural backbone is now the home of the most widely used application ever, the World Wide Web.

Even as late as the early 1990s, some computer industry analysts were predicting that the Internet would never amount to more than a home for BBSes and binary exchanges; a kind of dial-up file library system. While it's easy to be smug in hindsight, at the time, nobody laughed at them. Not out loud, at least. History is full of people who failed to see the future coming, even when it was barreling down right on top of them. Every revolutionary technology has had detractors who said it was just an aberration. It isn't surprising then that a quick straw poll of some leading professionals from the adult Internet world shows little awareness of, or interest in, the technology that just might turn out to be The Next Big Thing.

Little Gadgets, Big Impact

According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), there are more than 24 million PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) users in the U.S., a figure that is expected to grow by 57 percent by the end of 2001. As handheld computers become more powerful, and wireless connectivity comes down in price while going up in speed, PDA penetration is expected to mushroom.

In fact, the PDA is widely held to be the platform of choice in the realm of future computing. As technology convergence erases old-school paradigms of computing during the next decade, the actual desktop PC is believed by many to be the endangered species as technological evolution favors targeted devices like Internet appliances, gaming consoles, PC-based entertainment systems, and Portable Computing Units (PCU is next-gen gearhead shorthand for PDA).

And while this technological revolution is all theoretical, it would behoove forward-thinking Webmasters to contemplate this coming shift in the wind, if not actually setting sail to catch it.

Is Anybody Out There?

If the adult presence on the Net is the circus, PDA-targeted content is, for the moment, a sideshow. And not a particularly well attended one at that. One top Webmaster said he isn't even tracking his PDA channels because they do so little business. Of course, getting realistic numbers regarding actual traffic on the adult Internet has thus far proven to be a practical impossibility (sorry, SexTracker). Based on the numbers we got from various companies we spoke to for this article, our best (and extremely unscientific) guess is that there are between 1.5 and 2 million PDA users regularly searching for handheld porn.

Of those, most are old-school PDA users who sync their units every day or so, downloading and caching text, pictures, and Webpages for later viewing. In the PDA developers' community, this is called pack-and-go surfing. A smaller percentage are surfing via wireless connections, though how many of these are one-time visitors and how many are returns is impossible to guess.

By normal Webporn standards, that's not a huge pool through which to wade. However, with one in 10 Americans owning a PDA, a ratio that is expected to decrease to one in seven by the end of the year, the potential market is vast.

And a select few folks are actively trying to grab the interest - and wallets - of that market.

Doing It Right

One of those companies is SinPalm.com. "In a few years," says owner Kathryn Hudson, "maybe five, maybe 10, we'll be living in the big, wired world. You'll be able to get high-quality streaming video from anywhere in the world over your Palm. It'll be like Star Trek."

That Star Trek future is a lot closer than the 23rd century. The current capabilities of both Palm OS and Pocket PC-based PDAs are far more advanced than most adult industry Webfolk seem to realize. Ask most adult Webmasters what you can do for the Palm Pilot, and the probable answer will be "not much." Many imagine that the sum and breadth of PDA porn is encompassed by some downloaded text accompanied by a tiny, pixelated monochrome image.

Two years ago, this might have been true. Today, many Palms and Palm-compatibles offer color models, and all modern Pocket PCs have active matrix screens, with most being 32-bit. This allows for some very high-resolution images. Both platforms are also capable of playing video and audio files, either via second-party software like the free Fireviewer for the Palm, or PocketTV for the Pocket PC (which also ships with Microsoft MediaPlayer, which can play most media files).

Hudson's SinPalm really pushes the envelope of what's available. They provide the ubiquitous PDA fare, including stories and downloadable pictures, but they also offer video clips of varying sizes and resolutions. In testing one of these on a Pocket PC-based HP Journada, we found the quality to be surprisingly good. In fact, the picture quality is better than comparably sized portable televisions.

Other companies are taking a different tack. Stephanie Schwab, CEO of ErotiGo.com, envisions the future of PDAs as being one in which they facilitate navigation in the real world. And not just with GPS. "I see this as a way for the adult Web to connect to brick and mortar stores," says Schwab. "Video stores, strip clubs, escort services... they can put wireless channels online that can be accessed by anyone in the world with a wireless modem. If you think back to '93, the people who aren't interested in this now are like the people who said no to the Web back then. They were all wrong."

ErotiGo currently offers a pack-and-go adult guide to New York City. An electronic, X-rated answer to Fodor's, the ErotiGo guide has information on strip clubs, bookstores, escort services, and anything else crazy Rudy Giuliani would seriously frown on. Aware of the obvious limitations inherent in such a guide being available only for the Big Apple, Schwab has plans to expand the guide to encompass more cities, and to eventually make it available for wireless users.

In addition to the guide, ErotiGo will launch ErotiFolio.com this summer, a content site that will have stories, pictures, and videos for both platforms, for pack-and-go and wireless users.

Look Ma, No Wires

Many analysts believe the true potential of the PDA market is just now starting to be realized due to the rising acceptance, greater ease of use, and continually lower costs of acquiring a dependable wireless connection for your PDA. In two recent CEA surveys, wireless connectivity ranked first among features existing PDA owners wanted in an upgrade, and features potential PDA buyers said would convince them to purchase or not purchase a PDA.

Cupida.com is focused on getting - and keeping - the interest of those wireless users. The Cupida site has adult guides similar to ErotiGo's, but for several major cities. While the ErotiGo is much more exhaustive in its detail and number of entries, Cupida is graphically stronger. Wireless PDA owners can access the site's PQA channels from anywhere and get a basic overview of the erotic entertainment landscape for the cities Cupida covers.

Adam Phillips, CEO of Vinctura, the Web developer who built the Cupida site, believes that wireless is the transport of the future. "Wireless technologies are at the forefront of our industry," explains Phillips. "The cost to buy a wireless device has dropped dramatically over the past couple of months, allowing the public to purchase and use them regularly. There are now full-featured devices with color displays that allow for Internet browsing. This being said, we'll continue to see an increase in wireless traffic."

Tony O'Neill, president of PalmStories.com, a content site that works primarily on the stories-and-pictures model, goes a step further. "If you look at the fact that over 40 percent of Internet traffic is adult content - I've heard estimates as high as 60 percent - and figure that ultimately we will all connect to the Net via wireless devices - at least that's my view - it only makes sense that wireless porn is a good fit. I won't tell you that right now mobile porn is a sizeable chunk of Internet porn, but in time, it will be the biggest chunk."

Computer industry analysts would probably agree. One prediction holds that there will be more than 140 million wireless data users (this includes PDAs, text-messaging pagers, and WAP-enabled 2G and 3G phones) by the end of 2002. Since adult is the most successful content on the Web, Stephanie Schwab believes now is the time to prepare for the wireless Web. "The Internet caught us all by surprise, and wireless time moves even faster than Internet time. Be forewarned. Find a great partner and pay attention."

So How Does This Infernal Contraption Work?

Exactly why these folks want to see dirty pictures on their little palmtops is a topic that might seem transparent to some and opaque to others. "It's geek chic," says Hudson. "You get this thing and think, how can I get some dirty pictures on here?"

Schwab agrees, sort of. "There's a tremendous demographic overlap between the PDA buyer and the online porn consumer."

Alexander Zubkov, owner of Palmotica.com, a sync-and-go content site that provides stories, pictures, and videos for the Palm OS only, has a simpler answer. "It's fun!" says the Russian emigree. "You can get adult content anywhere. It's a function of desire."

Sure, it's fun. But how do already overworked Webmasters go about adding PDA-specific content to their sites? Without getting overtly technical, there are a few ways to do it. One is to offer pack-and-go channels via Web clipping services like AvantGo.

AvantGo (www.avantgo.com) is a Web service that grabs, selects, and "clips" pre-selected content from the Web and downloads it to a PDA when the user syncs up. The service costs the user nothing, and is available for all platforms. In fact, the AvantGo software ships with virtually every PDA sold in this country. And while AvantGo is just as publicly porn-phobic as most other mainstream companies, they will sync adult content. Just don't expect to start an affiliate program with them.

"Expect limitations," says Hudson. "They'll carry your channel, but they won't advertise it in the public directory. You have to do all the work where driving traffic is concerned." For those who need help, Hudson moderates a Yahoo! group for Webmasters who want to take the PDA plunge. You can find it at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sinpalmwebmasters.

For those who wish to cater to the wireless browser, things are a bit trickier. They have to create Web-clipping channels using a Palm Clipping Application (mysteriously abbreviated as PQA), which takes pre-determined chunks of your site and makes them available for remote viewing, thus allowing the best browsing experience given the current limitations on speed, bandwidth, and memory.

In more general terms, each person we spoke to had advice for potential PDA-friendly Webmasters.

"The best method for delivering content to different devices is to consider the task not as building a Website, but rather as building an application," explains Vinctura's Phillips. "In this context it becomes easier to build a solution that can scale to reach a variety of platforms. This practice can help a developer build a site that works for different browsers, but can also be extended, as in the case of Cupida.com, to reach different physical platforms, i.e., Palm III, V, VII, WAP-enabled devices, and Pocket PCs."

PalmStories' O'Neill offers similar advice, with an emphasis on planning. "Plan ahead in your Website's structure," says O'Neill. "When designing pages, always think about how to design them to best scale them to other browsers, be it WAP phones, AvantGo, etcetera. For now, most devices are really only capable of reading low-grade code. In other words, it's very simple HTML. There's no use for Flash animations or streaming QuickTime videos."

SinPalm's Hudson provides more sobering advice. "To do this right, you can't dabble," she says. "Get into the developer's groups. Both platforms have very good ones. Testing is important. PDAs are just like browsers; something that works on one might not work on another. There are emulators you can get to test your content. You don't have to buy each model of PDA to test your stuff. This technology changes fast, and you have to stay on top of it."

Show Me The Money

For most adult Webmasters, their sites are neither a hobby nor a charity. Porn is still the only thing making money on the Net, and most would prefer to keep doing it. In this fledgling marketplace, making money off your PDA content is, perhaps, the most difficult trick of all. And at the moment, there are only a few ways of doing it.

Most sites simply work on a membership basis, charging a nominal monthly fee. Additionally, there is a revenue-sharing option. PalmStories has partnerships with TopCash.com and AdultDVDEmpire.com; and SinPalm actually allows users to, at their choice, download ads when they sync which they can explore later.

Most adult Webmasters would simply scoff at this last notion, but Hudson swears it works. "No one was more surprised than me," she says. "But people are downloading these ads, and using them. We set up special URLs for them to click which take them to our advertisers, and those URLs are getting traffic."

Today and Tomorrow

Portable devices and the wireless access market are at an awkward stage, like a toddler taking its first steps. Various formats have to be ironed out; access costs and availability have to come down and go up, respectively; Palm OS devices in particular need a shot in the arm where processing power, memory, and multimedia capabilities are concerned. The Pocket PC needs to overcome its stepchild status in the marketplace.

However, it is a virtual certainty that these things will happen, possibly faster than anyone imagines. The Big Wireless World is coming, and people will want it in the palm of their hands. Tony O'Neill put it best. "Over the next five years, we are going to see another transformation as far as the Internet is concerned. Getting computers connected period was transformation one... getting broadband was transformation two... now, finally, we will get transformation three: wireless broadband. This 3G technology will dominate the wireless marketplace, and I think adult content is a natural fit. Whether the devices are phones, PDAs, or a combination of them, they will all be perfect browsers of adult content. I am talking about services such as streaming interactive video and audio, high quality pictures, and more than likely, location-specific adult information... things like local adult video stores, strip clubs, etcetera. That's where I see this going."

The PDA market today is where the home PC market was 10 years ago. However, public acceptance of new technologies moves more quickly now than ever. While it's impossible to say exactly what impact the almost certain PDA boom will have on the face of adult on the Net, Kathryn Hudson's Star Trek analogy isn't so silly. The "mainstream" of adult Webmasters can scoff at the PDA sites all they want, and like the quiet observers of coming technologies from decades past, we certainly won't laugh at them. At least, not out loud.

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