Playboy without wires

Playboy.com in New York says it will begin offering Playboy images to users of wireless devices starting early next year in 10 European countries and moving as soon as possible to the US.

          Playboy.com in New York says it will begin offering Playboy images to users of wireless devices starting early next year in 10 European countries and moving as soon as possible to the US.

          Playboy officials say that initially that more than 50 Playboy-branded images, such as the famous Playboy rabbit design, will be made available for downloading to wireless portable devices as a result of a licensing agreement with Wireless Entertainment Services Finland.

          The cost of the service wasn't announced but will vary according to the territory and the wireless carrier on a pay-per-download basis, Playboy officials say.

          The news of Playboy's entry into the wireless market is significant if only because Playboy is a well-known brand that could attract plenty of customers, which could pose moral and ethical questions for US-based carriers and even for end-user enterprises, says Alan Reiter, an analyst at Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

          "The carriers are concentrating on rolling out expensive next-generation networks and they need money and applications and customers, so it's going to be a difficult decision to build a wall against services they don't like if they generate a significant amount of money," he says.

          Playboy's subscription internet service, Playboy Cyber Club, was started in August 1997 and last week passed the 100,000 subscriber mark, says spokeswoman Laura Sigman. The free Playboy.com site receives 3.2 million unique views each month, she says.

          Reiter says there are already several sites that offer downloads of explicit sexual content to handheld devices, including some over wireless connections. In addition, London-based British Telecommunications offers wireless downloads of such content in Germany, and Hutchison 3G in Hong Kong is exploring such a service, he says. Most of the content is relatively low-resolution black-and-white images, Reiter says.

          But faster networks and larger colour personal digital assistant screens are on the way, posing a greater dilemma for carriers and enterprise customers, Reiter says. A US carrier could conceivably offer such a service by mid-2002, he says.

          "Porn could be an expensive problem for a corporation if a wirelessly enabled field or sales force is able to download megabytes of graphics onto their phones or laptops and the monthly carrier bill increases dramatically," Reiter says. What's more, "no corporation is going to want any of their customers to see an employee looking at porn over their shoulder."

          Reiter held a well-attended panel discussion on the question of vice on wireless devices at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) conference in Las Vegas last March. He challenged carriers to consider questions about passing along explicit content to phones that children can easily access, especially since past attempts to self-regulate vice on the wired internet fell short several years ago and led to stepped-up action by the Federal Trade Commission and hearings in Congress.

          An attorney at that event, Lynn Charytan at Washington-based Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, said carriers already have the right under federal law to restrict what materials reach their subscribers.

          CTIA spokesman Travis Larson says US wireless carriers haven't convened formal discussions at CTIA on passing along porn to subscribers. Still, "carriers are very sensitive to the types of information they make available and looking at this very carefully to see it doesn't fall into younger hands."

          Sprint PCS Group in Kansas City, Missouri, doesn't prevent a customer from typing in a web address to access a site on an internet-capable phone, assuming the site makes its content available to a wireless handheld, says spokeswoman Suzanne Lammers. So far, Sprint also doesn't have agreements with gambling or other vice sites to appear on the "home deck" (a handheld's home page) of a Sprint phone with a wireless browser. "Would such a thing ever be on our home deck? That's a different question that hasn't been answered," she says.

          Playboy insignias and other animations will first appear in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Italy, the Czech Republic, the UK and Spain, Playboy's Sigman says. "We are looking for someone as soon as possible to do it in the US, but the technology and infrastructure in Europe lends itself to starting there first," she says. Mainly, Europeans rely on the Global System for Mobile standard, while the US has several standards through several major carriers.

          Playboy hasn't heard any objections to providing its content wirelessly, she says. At least initially, images will appear mostly on "itty-bitty screens and include the rabbit insignia, which is not objectionable to anybody really," Sigman says. Subscribers to the service will also be able to have their voice mail personalised with the voice of a Playmate of the Month, Sigman says.

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