By Carlo Longino
It was inevitable: porn on your cellphone. While the iPod video is being hyped as the latest platform for adult content, a number of companies are convinced that someday very soon, the lion's share of mobile-porn customers will use their phones. That's because handsets are far more ubiquitous than Apple's pricey player, and they can connect to the Internet anytime, anywhere in order to download fresh content. Plus, of course, phones with increasingly sophisticated multimedia capabilities are becoming more and more commonplace.
The market for mobile adult content is expected to be about $200 million worldwide this year, but research firm Informa expects that figure to grow to $2.3 billion by 2010. Much of this growth is attributable to an explosion in available content, but the number of handsets than can access multimedia content, porn included, is growing, too. A recent Mobinet study found that 53% of handsets in the 21 countries surveyed could access multimedia services, up from 49% in 2004; in North America, the figure rose to 48% from 37%. So, as with any other new technology, from satellite to cable TV to the Internet, as penetration increases (no pun intended), so do porn sales.
So what are people spending their money on? Find out after the jump...
Porn's been available on mobile devices since the turn of the century, when Palm Pilots were the platform of choice, with stories and monochrome pictures. SMS sex-chat services are widespread in Europe, where punters with low self-esteem appreciate the luxury of not having to actually look a woman in the eye. (Many of them might be chagrined to discover that they're not texting real-life horny ladies, but rather cleverly programmed bots.)
Porn content comes in pretty much all the same flavors as any other mobile content — screensavers, wallpapers, games and even ringtones. Porn icon Jenna Jameson has her own line of "moantones", and if that doesn't float your boat, you can take things a step further with an Orgasmatone, a customized ringtone of somebody moaning your name in the throes of pleasure. But, of course, streaming and downloaded video is where the real action is, with short clips being sent via MMS, and 3G phones offering longer streaming videos.
But there are questions about the real demand for mobile pornography. While mobile phones do let people access the content from anywhere, whenever they want, most people don't necessarily need or want to get fresh porn all the time, particularly when they're out in public. But the real obstacle to the market (as with most things mobile) is the operators. They've got a love/hate relationship with adult content—they love the revenues it generates, but they hate the hassles that come along with it. As with Web porn enterprises, the operators complain about high chargebacks. Their biggest headache, though, is likely to be irate parents complaining that little Timmy saw some boobies on his phone.
Typically, operators get around the potential bad PR of being porn purveyors by not offering the content on their own portals. Instead, they let outside content providers sell to their customers on their own sites, but using the carrier's billing systems. This lets the carrier take their fee off the top, and just pass along the rest to the content provider without actually selling the material themselves. Other carriers have tried to block porn outright by using filters, though these work about as well as filters on the wired Internet. In one case, Vodafone implemented filters in the UK, and found they blocked plenty of legitimate content—including some users' Blackberry email accounts. The down side of these filters is that to get them removed from a particular user's account, the user has to prove his age to the carrier, typically by going into an operators' store and showing an ID to an employee. I doubt too many people want to go in and say, "Hi, I need to get approved so I can look at porn on my phone."
In the U.S., cellphone companies recently released a list of "Wireless Content Guidelines" they say they'll follow voluntarily. The rules include a classification scheme that will split content from their own portals into "generally accessible" and "restricted" content, and keep people under 18 away from the latter. They've also vowed not to offer restricted content until they've come up with control systems. Keep in mind, though, that these guidelines only apply to material on their own portals. To address off-portal content, they say they'll put filters in place, or allow parents to shut off access to the Internet completely for their kids' phones.
These content-control tools probably won't be any more successful than ordinary Web filters, which hardly do a scintillating job of blocking porn. But at least the carriers will have some plausible deniability, should Timmy's mom call in to complain about his being corrupted by tiny porn. The carriers will just point to their filters and other control systems and say, "Hey, look lady, we're doing all we can."
At the end of the day, though, the carriers crave the revenue that porn-driven traffic can generate. While they will make efforts to keep kids out of porn, they'll also do things to encourage its sales among adults. For now, though, they're just trying to figure out how to make the mobile equivalent of the plain brown wrapper.
Read more Airtime. The column appears every Tuesday on Gizmodo.