Private Screening in Public Places

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.

Obscenity laws vary widely. In Missouri, it's a crime to knowingly display in public explicit material. In Mississippi, even simulated sexual intercourse is deemed obscene. But in Montana, New Mexico and Oregon, there are no obscenity statutes on the books.

The issue could become clarified now that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Justice Department's appeal to reinstate a controversial law aimed at preventing children from viewing pornography online. Called the Child Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, the law is similar to the once-controversial Communications Decency Act, which tried to ban sexual material and speech from the Internet.

The Supreme Court four years ago ruled that the decency act was unconstitutional, finding that lawmakers could not protect children by barring distribution of lewd material online. So far, two lower courts, citing 1st Amendment concerns, have struck down COPPA.

Legal experts also note that, increasingly, the line between R-rated films and X-rated porn is blurring. Hollywood is marketing racier television programs, including the bed-hopping nudity of HBO's "Sex and the City."

"Standards are changing," said Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington attorney who has represented cable and Internet companies in their 1st Amendment claims. "When there is more adult content available, and a wider market wanting it, I see that as a reflection of a higher degree of public acceptance."

Yet that very availability can quickly become a flash point, particularly if the images are exposed to children.

The adult industry insists it will strive to prevent kids from accessing explicit wireless content. Most of the porn companies say shoppers must register an e-mail address and enter a credit card number, which is cross-checked with the issuer to verify the shopper's age.

"Clearly, kids are increasingly using hand-helds," said David Haskin of AllNetDevices, a Web site devoted to mobile computing. "To the extent that pornography inevitably finds its way on these devices, so will filtering. This is such an emotionally charged issue, you can bet there will be software available to control it."

The natural instinct of any mainstream company is to distance itself from being seen as a purveyor of adult material: Witness Net portal Yahoo's quick shutdown of adult-content pages in April after they were disclosed in The Times.

Microsoft, whose Pocket PC operating system is used by Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Casio, is quick to note that it isn't directly working with any adult-entertainment purveyors.

"These devices are business tools for mobile professionals," said Microsoft spokeswoman Cherie Hurdstrom. "That said, entertainment elements have been built in too. Some users might gravitate to adult content. It's like with the telephone. Everyone knows there's phone sex, but that's not why the phone was invented."

Workday Web Traffic Good for Business

It doesn't cost much to start a wireless adult service. Steve Tietze got the rights to 50,000 photos by promising his supplier, an X-rated photo wholesaler, a cut of the profit. He then turned a spare room in his Marin County house into the headquarters of Pocket-XXX.

For $20 a month, users get a daily video package of three women, each posed in a dozen ways. There will be an X-rated story, a daily joke, an audio file that consists of a woman talking dirty, a video clip or two. "No one has ever overestimated the public demand for adult material," Tietze said.

PK Entertainment, a two-person Baltimore firm that operates several adult Web sites, started a free wireless package a year ago. The company says about 18,000 people regularly access it. Monday through Thursday are the big days, with porn downloads falling sharply Fridays and reaching a low during the weekend.

"Our customers connect with us while at work," said PK co-founder Kathryn Hudson. "It might be because they have a faster connection at the office--or maybe they're just bored."

No wonder David Allyn, a historian of contemporary sexuality, thinks wireless pornography will further undermine efforts to keep sex out of the office. "The average American employee now has less personal space at work than the average prisoner in his cell," he said. "So why wouldn't you want to escape via technology and via sex?"

PK is on the verge of launching a premium porn service, which will cost about $6 a month for more photos and other enhancements. Hudson's goals are initially modest--about 2,000 paid subscriptions. She's already hearing criticism along the lines of "How many people really have to have porn with them all the time?" Said Hudson: "It's just another diversion."

It's a diversion that Palm might need to exploit. Palm became successful because its PDAs didn't try to be anything more than organizers of phone numbers and appointments. But the latest-generation competing devices are selling well, partly because they allow users to download video clips and edit documents in ways Palms don't.

Expensive hand-helds--those with color screens, that can support video and have sufficient memory to store dozens of snapshots--are increasingly popular, as evidenced by the success of Compaq's iPaq, introduced a little more than a year ago. In the quarter just ended, Compaq shipped as many as 500,000 iPaqs. That's 125,000 short of Palm's total, even though at $500 the iPaq is on average twice as expensive.

If Palm--which laid off 300 employees this year--is floundering, that doesn't mean it's going to embrace adult material.

Spokeswoman Ronni Sarmanian said that although some developers might be working on adult applications for the Palm, there is no such group at the company itself.

Stephanie Schwab, who started a wireless adult service called Erotigo, said she had some discussions with Palm. Company officials wanted to support Erotigo, which offers a sort of guidebook to sexual New York as well as the usual photo assortment, but they couldn't do it openly because it was "too sensitive" a subject, Schwab said.

But Palm also saw Erotigo as something that would give more people "a reason to buy the device, particularly the more powerful Palms," said Schwab.

Entrepreneurs are lining up to offer packages over an even more unlikely venue: cell phones. Cellmania, an online directory service, is listing about 50 sites that promise to provide adult material over cell phones. Three months ago, there were only a dozen.

"If it's easy and fun, and you're carrying your phone around and you have nothing else to do, you download a picture," said wireless phone consultant Alan Reiter. "How many people with high incomes are playing solitaire on their computers in business and first class? Who would have thought that? And pictures of naked people are a lot more exciting than solitaire."

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Times staff writers David Streitfeld and P.J. Huffstutter cover technology.

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