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Private Screening in Public Places

New porn software for hand-held computers brings business opportunities and legal questions.

July 19, 2001|DAVID STREITFELD and P.J. HUFFSTUTTER, p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com | david.streitfeld@latimes.com

The woman on the tiny computer screen was gyrating wildly, shedding her clothes. The men in the Gordon Biersch restaurant in Palo Alto needed only a glance at the six-minute striptease to render their verdicts.

"This offers instant gratification," said Andrew Brenner, 32, who organizes outdoor activities for laid-off dot-commers.

"It will catch on," confirmed his roommate, Dan Gelb, 27, a researcher for a Silicon Valley computer company.

Advances in technology are bringing the peep show to a portable computer near you. This marriage of pornography and wireless devices comes at a time when both industries are searching for innovative ways to expand their markets.

"Everyone's in discussions right now, trying to figure out what deals to make and how to get a piece of the business," said Gregory Geelan, president of YNotMasters, a San Diego online company that works with adult-oriented Web sites.

Searching for a new way--and a new screen--to hawk sexual images, the adult-entertainment industry has turned to the wireless world.

After all, special applications already allow mobile-computer users to take satellite navigation readings, make phone calls, play games, listen to music and snap photos. Now these small hand-held devices are taking electronic pornography to places it's never been: restaurants, subways, airport lounges, sporting events, traffic jams and waiting rooms of all types.

"Pornography is spreading its tentacles through society," said Patrick Trueman, legal counsel to the American Family Assn. "Now you can do it with a device that fits in your pocket. This is just adding more fuel to the fire."

This new porn market might face fresh legal challenges, given the mobility of personal digital assistant computing devices and conflicting obscenity laws.

It also appears likely to raise a new round of concern for parents. Although pornography can be blocked from personal computers by installing special software, no such filtering system currently exists for hand-helds.

In recent months, dozens of small Internet firms have begun experimenting with allowing consumers to download erotic material onto their hand-helds. Several companies, among them Pocket-XXX and PocketFlesh, were hyping portable porn as the next big thing at the Internext adult-technology trade show in Las Vegas last month.

"We just made the morning commute a little easier," proclaims the home page for PocketFlesh. Boasting "Adult Entertainment. Anywhere, Anytime," the PocketFlesh ad shows a suited man staring avidly at his hand-held while riding public transportation.

The start-ups, however, face serious competition from the bigger players in the adult-entertainment space. Barcelona-based Private Media, the largest distributor of erotica in Europe, plans to roll out a service that will beam hard-core images to mobile-phone users.

Vivid Video in Van Nuys, one of the nation's biggest producers of X-rated films, will launch early next year a wireless service with excerpts from its extensive adult-film library.

Penthouse magazine is testing software to send wireless photos and stories; it hopes to have a subscription service operating by September.

"The ultimate visionary end of this is Penthouse magazine delivered digitally," said Gerard Van der Leun, president of the magazine's Internet division.

Pornography and PDA a Logical Convergence

Portable erotica has the potential to be big business. Despite some recent troubles for market leader Palm Inc.--which has seen sales slow and is embroiled in a price war with competitors--purchases of hand-helds industry-wide are expected to increase from 10 million last year to 33 million in 2004, according to Gartner Dataquest.

The most popular segment of the personal digital assistant computer market is for models priced at $500 and higher, with color screens, high resolution and video. These models account for about 2 million unit sales a year and are the ones best suited for watching erotic images.

Adult material on hand-held computers represents the logical convergence of two areas in which the porn industry has been hugely influential: VCRs and the Internet. In both cases, some of the first firms to take advantage of these new technologies offered easier and more private access to erotica. Even now, much of the money spent by consumers on the Web is for hard-core pornography.

"Videotapes took erotica out of the dirty-picture theaters and brought it into people's living rooms, destroying the old adult-theater industry in the process," said Charles King, a technology analyst with Zona Research in Silicon Valley. "Now hand-held computers are taking pornography out of the living room and making it entirely portable and virtually anonymous."

But questions remain about whether local obscenity laws will inhibit the growth of hand-held porn. "It's murky," said David Greene of the nonprofit First Amendment Project.

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