An exhibition of early photography, late nineteenth and early twentieth century, held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York a few years ago drew comment for the amount of pornographic and erotic images on display. Of course, by some of today's standards the pornography was pretty mild and the sort of thing which could be found in many magazines available below the top of the shelf.
The reason for the inclusion of so much material of this nature was simply that there was so much of it. Pornography is acknowledged to have played a major role in the evolution of early cameras and photographic film. The demand for pornographic photographs meant that there was money in providing sharper, better quality images and the porn industry was willing to pay for it because of the returns available.
The same thing happened in the early years of Hollywood. It is now accepted that many of the early porn film makers of the late teens and 1920s were actually better equipped technological than their "legitimate" counterparts. In fact, some the great directors and actors of the time cut their cinematographic teeth in the underground industry.
Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the power of the porn industry in terms of influencing technological innovation was the case of the video cassette recorder. Two rival systems of recording and playback were developed in the late 1970s, one was Sony BetaMax, the other was VHS. The BetaMax system was regarded, and still is, as the far superior system in almost every respect. To this day it is still the system of choice for professional video cameras.
However, Sony refused to license the use of its technology to the porn industry. The industry naturally turned to the VHS system - and lo, the world followed. The fact that the vast majority of porn videos were only available on VHS had such a huge influence on the purchasers of VCRs that within a few years the Betamax format had disappeared from the home VCR and VHS was the only format available.
Which brings us to today. The Internet porn industry, and we are talking about the legal side of it rather than the underground illegal industry, has pioneered audio and video streaming, Flash, chat, and a variety of on-line payment systems. It has also been at the forefront of the development of click-through banners and the pop-up window so reviled by most Internet users.
The reasons for the so-called adult industry's being a first mover in the technology area are fairly simple. The industry peddles a very popular commodity and it is one for which people are willing to pay. So, unlike lots of other dot.com plays, porn sites can start making money almost from day one.
THE UNDERBELLY OF E-COMMERCE
To give some idea of the scale of the adult industry on the Web, the last research carried out into its value by Forrester showed that it was worth about USD1 billion in the US in 1998, that accounted for more than a fifth of the total e-commerce market in the US that year which was just USD4.8 billion. At that stage there were already 60,000 porn sites in the US and the industry was growing at 40 percent a year.
With quick returns to be made the porn industry can afford to invest in the latest technology to attract bigger audiences. Furthermore, the adult industry is intensely competitive and the audience is notoriously fickle. If one porn site doesn't have the latest video streaming technology and a competitor does, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which site the punter will pay for.
Stefan Elmer of IDC's European Internet Centre agrees that the adult industry has played an important role in technological innovation on the Internet but also says that it is hard to find any empirical or research data to support or prove this. "Common sense has to be the starting point", he said. "We know that porn sites or erotic or adult sites are very popular. And we also know that they are competing against each other. I would agree that they have helped drive innovation and technology on the Internet because of this."
He also sees a more fundamental role played by the porn industry. "I believe that the adult industry was one of the things that made the Internet take off in first place", he says. "The earliest entertainment sites were the porn sites and these attracted a lot of new users. The industry has also helped drive the demand for bandwidth with people looking for faster speeds to download pictures and video and so on."
"The porn industry has definitely been in the lead in the technology sphere," said Donald Bellamy of Strategy Analytics in Boston. "But it hasn't led in areas such as personalisation and one-click buying where others such as Amazon are in the lead. This raises some questions about where the industry is going as we move into the broadband universe. Will the adult industry maintain its technological lead in that space as well?"
Despite the current technological lead held by the porn industry Bellamy predicts that it won't last, much in the way that its lead in other waves of technology didn't last, either. "There are certain roadblocks being put in the way of the industry, some of them legal and some of them practical", Bellamy said. "For example, porn sites in the US can no longer accept American Express cards. For a long time these sites were trading on the goodwill of the credit and charge card companies to take the losses on people who claimed that they didn't make a particular purchase with their card.
Not surprisingly the incidence of people claiming not to have authorised a transaction is far higher for porn sites than with other e-commerce sites and Amex simply said they had had enough. Whether it is because people's kids have genuinely got hold of a card and abused it or if it is a case of people's wives or husbands seeing an item on a bill they don't like, repudiation rates are high. Amex couldn't have got away with this with any other e-commerce segment,
but you're hardly going to have Amex users protesting on the streets because they can no longer buy porn with their cards."
Another roadblock for the porn industry is again in the payments area. "Some of the non-credit card ways of purchasing on the Internet are now specifically excluding porn sites as well", said Bellamy. "This is because the providers of these payment services are primarily aiming at the youth market who don't have access to credit cards and they want to reassure the parents that the service won't be used to access inappropriate material.
"The good news is that the porn industry has had a lead in every wave of relevant technology in the past but this didn't last because it ran into difficulties in areas such as distribution", he continued. "The Internet will be no different."
So, in a few years time the porn sites on the Internet may be the equivalent of some of the current porn movie industry - second rate - but don't be surprised if future generations attending exhibitions of early Internet sites get the impression that late 20th Century homo sapiens were obsessed with sex and pornography.
Barry McCall is at