It is time to stop whining about Web porn sites and admit they make a valuable contribution to the Web. I'm not talking about the articles on playboy.com, but Internet payment schemes, streaming video, and authentication. By and large, these technologies are primitive outside cyber-porn and probably wouldn't exist at all without the mass-market appeal of sex.
As with the video rental business two decades ago, porn has greatly furthered a medium with inauspicious beginnings.
In the days before the Web, there were two principle sources of electronic porn: the alt.sex newsgroups and CompuServe. Because newsgroups were invented before people thought about transferring dirty pictures online, to send a picture, you first had to encode it as text so it could be transmitted like other newsgroup postings. Once you received such a message, you had to decode it, then view it in a graphics program. Even now, few newsreaders can display images.
CompuServe has always had forums (newsgroup-like free-ranging discussions associated with libraries of files) that contained porn. You just had to know the keyword to find them. A celebrated lawsuit in Germany brought additional technology to bear where anyone could restrict their own CompuServe accounts to keep kids away from porn.
Many would-be porn connoisseurs were frustrated by these technologies. Accessing the pictures took technical know-how, and even if you had the technical chops, it was a clumsy, error-prone process. The Web was invented just in time to solve the problem. Most Web browsers can display GIF and JPEG images without additional software. Not surprisingly, porn merchants wasted little time before putting up Web sites with such memorable domain names as clublove.com and naughty.com. Before one could say centerfold, we had thousands of porn sites.
Can I See Some ID? Partly in response to the profusion of Web-based porn sites, in 1996, the U.S. government passed the misguided Communications Decency Act (see "Communications Decency Act Ruled Unconstitutional" in TidBITS-386). While the legislation was on the books briefly, many porn Web site owners feared that allowing access to underage viewers could land them in jail and so had a strong incentive to require authentication on the Web. Rather than have would-be customers register using several hundred different schemes, a few enterprising merchants like AdultCheck created standards to authenticate visitors, then offered their services to other porn sites.
Of course, no authentication system is iron-clad. These sites ask you to pledge that you have reached the age of majority, and they require a credit card number for an "Adult Pass" subscription. An interested teenager could defeat these requirements. Even so, the porn sites brought order to something that had previously resisted any hint of standardization. Even more interesting is that these sites successfully sell content, something that has eluded the giants of the publishing world.
A second strategy is insecure but simple: you enumerate the passwords and user name combinations on a piece of paper or in a text file on your hard disk. Wouldn't it be nice to have standards here? Let's hope that normal Web sites aren't too embarrassed by porn to take advantage of the de facto standards in place among the porn sites.
Memorize those Lines -- However, showing still images isn't enough to stay competitive in today's world of net.porn. The public wants video. At the moment, there are over a dozen different ways you can view video images inside or alongside a Web browser. They all suck: even under the best of circumstances, the images are too small, the resolution akin to a 1950's TV set, and forget about synchronizing the audio with the video.
Matching the right set of plug-ins, Java applets, browser versions, and other bits of technology between your desktop and the video site is at best a complex undertaking and at worst nearly impossible. Worse, to download a file and play back the video off your disk instead of over the Internet, you'll find that it takes five to fifty times longer to download the file than to view it - not a satisfactory situation.
We haven't yet seen the total effect of porn here, in large part because of the amount of bandwidth that video requires, but my guess is that within another year we'll have solid standards in place for streaming video. And it will happen first on the porn sites; there's undoubtedly more demand for porn video than CNN news clips and video interviews.
Cash, Check, or Charge? Besides authentication and video, porn sites are also pushing the envelope on payment technologies. Right now, when paying for something over the Internet, you may be fearful (about having a credit card number stolen [We know of no instance of this happening during an online transaction. -Adam]) or frustrated (some electronic commerce sites don't work properly). You may also wish that site interfaces for online purchasing were more uniform or required less data entry. Porn merchants were the first to jump on the Internet payment bandwagon: one of First Virtual Holdings' biggest beneficiaries was a porn site that charged just a few dollars per picture, using their pioneering payment system.
With so many sites offering roughly the same products, porn customers won't wait around for confusing or inelegant payment schemes that require filling out multiple forms. If the payment system isn't dirt simple and quick, they'll try a less complex site. I look to these sites to help the more staid commercial Web sites learn how to design the right kinds of payment screens. Although there is much work to be done in terms of how credit card payments are posted to one's merchant account, once again porn has moved out in front on this issue.
So, let's recognize the pornographers for what they are: trail blazers of Internet technology. Meanwhile, I gotta catch that terrific interview on playboy.com.
[David Strom founded CMP's Network Computing magazine in 1990 and was its first editor-in-chief. He currently writes for InfoWorld, Windows Sources, and Forbes ASAP.]