Sin Is In
By Mark Frauenfelder, Mon Feb 10 12:45:00 GMT 2003

This week, TheFeature takes a look at vice gone mobile. Will these apps drive 3G?

Certain media pundits like to reminisce about the good old days, when everybody had a clean mind, a cleaner mouth, and kept their pants zipped at all times. The truth is, people still had their vices, it's just that they kept them to themselves. Racy French postcards were stored under the counter. Grainy 8-mm stag films arrived in unmarked envelopes. Sports betting was conducted over the phone with a shadowy underworld bookie. Blackjack, craps, and roulette were relegated to the dimly-lit back rooms of businesses in the industrial section of town.

Today, it's a different story. Vices are out in the open, and sin is in. You can find formerly forbidden pleasures everywhere you look: Adult video actresses are scoring guest star appearances on prime time sitcoms. Hustler has a high-profile retail store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Performances like The Vagina Monologues and Puppetry of the Penis play to sold-out crowds. State-run lotteries are a major source of educational funding. And Las Vegas has transformed itself into a phantasmagorical playground where youngsters can indulge themselves in high-tech fantasies while Mom and Dad gamble away their kids' college funds at the blackjack table and video poker machines.

Moving Into the Open

Sociologists have come up with dozens of reasons why personal vices have gone mainstream, ranging from media desensitization to the end of the traditional family structure. You can read any number of books decrying the end of civilized civilization. But in the end, there's just one reason why vice is no longer considered not-so-nice: thar's gold in them thar hills of depravity. "Vices are not crimes," wrote the unusually enlightened legal writer Lysander Spooner in 1875. That may be true, but the amount of money made from vices is positively criminal. People spend more of their disposal income on pornographic magazines and videos - $60 billion a year in the US - than they do on movies, video games, recorded music, theme parks, and spectator sports combined. Legal gambling also rakes in about $60 billion a year, which doesn't include bingo, that favorite pastime of blue-haired old ladies and church fundraisers, which makes $70 billion a year. Nobody is certain exactly how much under-the-table gambling goes on, but the Nevada Gaming Commission estimates that illegal bookmaking pulls in between $80 billion to $100 billion a year.

Increasingly, this filthy lucre is moving online, where titillating images and spinning roulette wheels are just a click - and a credit card number - away. Internet porn will be worth $3.2 billion in the U.S. and Western Europe this year, according to market researcher firm Datamonitor. That amount represents over half of everything - clothes, travel, books, hardware, toys, gadgets, etc. - online consumers will pay in 2003. And online casino gambling is already a $4 billion and growing market. Naturally, the mobile Internet is eager to grab a share of the vice pie, and if current trends are any indication, it will be a fat slice indeed. Pornography and gambling could very well be the killer apps for online devices. After all, we carry our vices in our heads - doesn't it make sense to carry them in our mobiles as well? In an age of instant gratification, mobile devices can make satisfying your urges more instant than ever.

When it comes to the sex, customers are willing to pay a premium to get it on their handhelds. Vodafone charges double to send messages using its anonymous "flirting" channel, and Deutsche Telekom sells subscriptions to erotic horoscopes to its customers at premium prices. And why not? From a consumer perspective, mobile vice makes good sense. Take sex directories, for instance. What's the best way to serve business travelers who feel like finishing off a long day of boardroom negotiations in an unfamiliar metropolis by partaking of some of the offerings of the local red light district? Until recently, the horny traveler had to resort to checking the ads in the back pages of weekly entertainment magazines or the "escort services" section of the yellow pages - a decidedly hit-or-miss prospect.

But thanks to the mobile Internet, consumers looking for a little action can now use digital erotic traveler's guides for mobile devices, such as ErotiGo ("Sex in the Palm of your Hand"), which provides listings and reviews of erotic entertainment in major cities around the world for a mere $14.95 a year. Because of their mobile nature, the possibilities for mobile personalization go much further than standard print guides for strip club and massage parlors. Location-sensing technology will prove to be a boon to the erotic tourist. "Strip club 50 meters ahead! Press *69 for $10 off the cover charge!" Customers will be able to write reviews of establishments that other people can read: "I just paid $50 for the world's worst lapdance at this place." Then there's the whole world of online dating and flirting. What could be more fun than sending a lover instant messages and digital pictures of last night's exploits while you're having dinner with another lover?

While sex sells, there's nothing quite like the temptation to strike it rich by beating the odds in a casino or betting parlor. The urge to gamble seems to be as strong, if not stronger, than the urge to procreate. Therefore, like prostitution, the market for gambling is huge and universal. Most governments, well aware of the hazards of giving its citizens unfettered access to glitzy schemes designed to sucker people out of their pension funds - closely regulate gambling, limiting it to certain geographical areas and types of games. But the online world knows no borders. There are over 1,500 online casinos that allow real time cash betting, and BearStearns predicts that online gamblers will drop $5 billion this year, mostly into the coffers of Caribbean-based islands, which are famous for their lax laws regarding banking and taxes. Even though many countries have tried to outlaw Internet gambling, online casinos have proven to be one of the best money making opportunities on the Internet - that is, for the casino operators, not the suckers who rack up their credit card bills on them.

The Week Ahead

In this special theme week at, we'll explore the wide world of mobile vice in all its varieties. Sex! Gambling! Crime! None of these activities are going to go away anytime soon, despite some people's best efforts to scrub the planet clean of deviant behavior. So, rather than deny that we all have occasional urges to dip our toes in the waters of wantonness, we feel it's better to understand what's happening by sending out our team of intrepid reporters into to underworld of wireless vice.

Today, TheFeature kicks off the week by descending past vice into the realm of mobile fraud and terrorism. Niall McKay takes an in-depth look at criminals and terrorists around the world who use wireless devices to wage their sinister campaigns. How do mobiles serve the evil needs of the modern criminal? And how are law enforcement agencies around the world are fighting back with their arsenal of wireless anti-crime devices?

Who wants to make a bet that mobile gambling will overtake desktop betting? On Tuesday, Steve Wallage gets the inside scoop on sports betting, and how wireless is going to figure into the strategy of the betting providers. How much of the action will mobile betting venues be able to squeeze away from traditional venues? Wallage will also report on Hong Kong based SmarTone's gamble to offer proprietary betting SIMS that have built-in menus and accounts, and which deliver live broadcasts of sporting events.

On Wednesday, Niall McKay returns with a report on the ways in which the online porn industry is gearing up for what could be their most lucrative medium yet. Will old-school smut producers be able to keep up with the new breed of Wi-Fi porn kings? And what are the winning strategies that will keep customers coming back for more of pixilated porno flicks?

Thursday is censorship day at TheFeature. No, we aren't going to start blocking content on the site; instead, we'll report on China's plans to censor and monitor the mobile Internet. Even though the Chinese government employs an army of Web surfers to screen out anything objectionable, people still find a way to get around the blockades. Will mobile Internet users be able to get past the filters, too?

On Friday, it's back to everybody's favorite subject: S.E.X. Justin Hall reports from Tokyo on mobile sex in Japan. DoCoMo is big on videoconferencing, and the sex trade is already making use of it - Hall describes how schoolgirl escorts are using picture messaging to look over prospective salaryman clients. What are the other ways in which the Japanese are combining the allure of sex with the power and convenience of the mobile Internet? Hall has the answers.

It's Vice Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility. And share your views on this topic in the Podium.

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.