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January 25, 2001 11:00pm
Porn in the Palm of Your Hand
Source: Wired News
by: Farhad Manjoo

2:00 a.m. Jan. 26, 2001 PST

(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) -- Just downstairs from the Wired News offices, there's a Tower Records outlet that offers a smorgasbord of pornographic magazines.

Ranging from the most wholesome adult fare to the kind that's positively jail-worthy, the selection is remarkable even for San Francisco.

The problem is, Tower Records has placed the porn on a rack right next to the street, such that if one decides to sample the material, he or she is subject to the scrutiny of anyone who might be walking by.

So says Tony O'Neill, a 20-year-old college student who developed what he claims is a much better "adult content delivery system" than the porno mag: the porno Palm. O'Neill's service, called Palmstories, is offered as a subscription-based channel on Avantgo, a service that allows users of handhelds to read the news on their PDAs.

A year and a half ago, though, O'Neill said that he realized that handheld users wanted more than to just read the news.

"I thought, if people are moving into this handheld platform, there's got to be a way to make money from it," he said. And one of the best ways to make money on the Internet is by providing adult content.

Due to the technical limitations of handhelds -- low memory, poor screen resolution -- the channel mainly offers stories, not pictures. For $6 a month, O'Neill provides four new erotic stories a day, which he culls from the Internet.

The stories are your typical, melodramatic adult fare, with the women more buxom than in real life, and the men more brawny.

There are lines like "...just the sound of that velvet voice was enough to get my pot steamed." But if this kind of thing sometimes sounds more funny than titillating, there's reason to believe it gets the job done. O'Neill has managed to sign up more than 8,000 people for his free demo site.

"A lot of business travelers like it," he said. "They are males, mostly age 18 to 35, professionals -- and some military, and, actually, a lot of people from foreign countries. Singapore is the second biggest subscriber after the U.S."

But O'Neill is a bit disappointed that of the thousands who signed up for the demo, which offers one new story a week, only a few hundred have opted to pay for a subscription. He believes that this is because of the limitations of the medium, and might change in the future.

"It's too much of a novelty so far, for some people," he said. But O'Neill suspects that as handhelds get more entrenched in the culture, people won't find getting adult content on their Palms so weird. Still more people would subscribe, he said, as PDAs advance enough to display pictures. "Pictures will probably become a greater focus," O'Neill said, "but right now, I don't want to be filling up memory with many good-quality pictures."

Currently, O'Neill's subscription service does offer two new adult pictures each day, but the resolution renders them inscrutable on the small monochrome screen of most Palms.

When Wired News took a porn-enabled Palm V to a San Francisco bar and asked some patrons for feedback on the pictures, their remarks were decidedly unfavorable.

"It looks like Picasso's gray period," said Steven Lewitzky, who identified himself only as an Internet slave. Lewitzky and his pals, who indicated that they were pretty familiar with what a good pornographic image should look like, found it difficult to make out what specific sordid scene was going on in the Palm.

"I would call the smut tech support on that one," Lewitzky said. His friend Matt Rolufs added, "It's an affront to God's image."

But imaging on handhelds is in its infancy; the technology is bound to get better, and when it does, it could be a bonanza for adult providers. That's because the profit margin for this kind of content is incredibly high.

"That's the beauty of it," O'Neill said. He spends just an hour or so updating the channel each day, finding material from Usenet, or some other source on the Web where free adult content isn't hard to come by.

But despite the fact that adult content for handhelds is so cheap and easy to produce, O'Neill's Palmstories is the only channel on Avantgo that offers such red-light material. After Palmstories was set up, Avantgo decided to bar X-rated channels.

"We have a company policy now that wasn't in place when Palmstories joined the service," said Karen Longston, a spokeswoman for the company. "The policy is not to have those kind of channels on the site."

Longston said that in the past, Avantgo was trying to expand channels at a "very rapid pace," and that's why Palmstories was allowed in; but now, although users can make their own private X-rated channels, they can't publicize them in Avantgo's directory.


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