The next Internet revolution is approaching. That’s right, in about two years, we will no longer be forced to remember horridly difficult URLs like britneyspears.com, and instead will be able to go to much easier Web sites like britneyspears.music.
Doesn’t sound like much of a revolution to you? Me neither. But others beg to differ, and differ at great length.
The Root of All Evil -- I caught the tail end of the .nxt conference, an event for businesses looking to join the “Internet land rush” of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). A TLD is the part of a domain name following the last dot in a URL—i.e., “com,” “net,” or “org,” to name the three that probably dominate your Web surfing experience. TLDs are divided into country codes, generic, and a few technical and experimental areas. The generic TLDs originated in the United States, and were restricted to U.S. use before the commercial Internet began in the mid-1990s. Those who wanted domains elsewhere had to rely on country code TLDs.
This resulted in a still-persistent historical imbalance: a major American chocolate outfit might be found at http://www.hersheys.com/, while a major British confectioner relies on http://www.cadbury.co.uk/. Discerning readers will note that there’s nothing inherently American about .com. We just take it for granted that the top-level in American URLs gets to be a category of American organizations, rather than the entire country. This eventually led to .com becoming the default domain for any business in the world, and later for pretty much anyone else who wanted their Web site to have a “normal” address.
Consider for a moment how silly it would be if everyone in the world suddenly clamored for a phone number starting with 6, and all other phone numbers were déclassé. That’s essentially what happened on the Internet. Plug in a single word on almost any browser in the last ten years (excepting those with integrated search bars), and if they can’t find a site there, they’ll add a .com to see if that’s what you wanted.
This has long struck many observers as ranging between a wee bit odd and yet another blow by American hegemony against the nations of the world. American organizations, it’s said, are the Animal Farm first-among-equals in this system, further proven by the domain system’s long-standing inability to have anything but non-accented Roman characters used in names. The issue of using characters other than those found in English has been partly solved (not yet for TLDs). But the larger problem—the concentration of the world’s mindshare into the .com space—remains on the docket.
That is, if it’s actually a problem at all.
Master of Your Domain -- Domains are created and administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, a nonprofit organization that attempts to be the United Nations for governments, technical organizations, and Internet citizens. It has a very simple and straightforward organizational structure, depicted below:
I kid about ICANN—and many times, it is eminently deserving of kidding—but if you think about it, the above diagram isn’t all that complicated considering what ICANN has to do. Someone has to be in charge of the system that turns www.apple.com into 126.96.36.199. That someone has, by definition, a global constituency. And that global constituency, also nearly by definition, may not all be in agreement about things like free speech and who should be able to access and publish on the Internet.
ICANN has the job of resolving the .com problem, and they’ve done so by opening up the gTLDs. Any organization can apply for a gTLD, which is essentially a request for the equivalent of .com, from which they can assign as many domains as their servers (and bank accounts) can handle. Over 100 groups are known to have applied, and there will probably be many more when the entire list is published in October 2011.
If you want your own .com domain, all you have to do is head to your favorite registrar online, pony up around ten bucks, and pick a name that’s never been thought of before by anyone in history. If you want your own gTLD, it’s a little more involved, starting with the $185,000 application fee. That’s right, application fee. You can still be turned down. gTLDs must be approved by ICANN, and they’re looking for gTLDs which match their guidelines, such as being existing communities or global brands. For full details, refer to the New gTLD Applicant Guidebook Version 2, which is due to be replaced next month with the final edition.
The premise behind both the fee and the application process is to prevent Internet domain naming from becoming a free-for-all; if any word can become a gTLD, it’s the equivalent, some would say, to having U.S. phone numbers which could be any number of digits between 10 and 30.
Which brings us to the .nxt conference, where around 100 people gathered in a room to debate the Internet and party like it’s 1999. Own your own gTLD, with a domain that becomes a hot Internet address, and you can set pricing for organizations and people who wish to set up shop there. Alternately, if you’re of a more communitarian bent, you can use your gTLD to cultivate the community of people who host there.
Three of the domains in the latter category were regularly brought up in discussion, especially when the would-be proprietor of .music had his cell phone go off, playing a merry tune and interrupting the panel when someone called out, “Great branding!” But the other two domains give some idea of how complicated this issue can be: .gay and .green. Give out the .green gTLD, and now there’s an organization empowered to bestow the green name, literally, on its applicants.
Meanwhile, the .gay domain is expected to be vigorously opposed by quite a few nations on the stance that gay people shouldn’t be out in public, and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to talk to each other. And after the domain is established, it provides a handy method for these countries to shut down access to these sites all at once.
Gold Rush, or Fool’s Gold? -- The tone of the conference was aptly captured with the presentation by Juan Diego Calle, CEO of .CO Internet S.A.S. and proprietor of Colombia’s .co country TLD. In his opinion (and in his marketing materials), .com is a “typo,” and there’s a massive marketing opportunity for his company in recapturing the historical abbreviation of “Co.” for corporations around the world. Beyond the marketing, though, his most salient point was his defense of why he’s in favor of expanding the gTLD space: until the market is flooded with new domains, no one will ever know that there’s anything beyond the .com.
Nearly everyone in the room was in agreement that the new gTLDs would create a new boom in business, the land rush that’s heralded by the .nxt conference Web site. They were there to debate the details—and from the discussion, the details of running a gTLD registry can be extremely difficult, and there was little doubt that many players in the space would fail, but others would go on to be the next Internet billionaires.
This is where I apply my rather skeptical wet blanket perspective. There’s one major problem with all this, and it can be summarized in the one word that has become so ubiquitous that no one even bothers adding the .com appendix: Google.
The idea that .com is the Nob Hill of the Internet dates back to a time when a smaller and more tech-savvy Internet populace memorized URLs; today, it’s far more common that your average Internet user will toss the company they’re looking for into Google—and do so repeatedly rather than memorize a URL. I wish I could remember or reference where I heard this, but it’s not uncommon for people to get to Google’s own home page by Googling for Google in the Google search bar. For these people, it doesn’t matter if the site they’re landing on is google.com, goo.gl, or letmeGooglethatforyou.com. The search is what matters. [Editor’s note: My father, now an experienced Internaut, spent at least his first year online in the 1990s without a location bar to enter URLs nor the knowledge that URLs existed. He used Alta Vista as his home page. -Glenn]
Meanwhile, this is being presented in a roomful of people who applauded and laughed when Calle referred to his initial marketing as, and I quote, “We created a digital orgasm.” I remember when I was drinking that sort of Kool-Aid, and it was when I was an Internet entrepreneur in the 1990s. So my impression from the meeting is that I was at the start of something—and it’s a business niche where companies are going to create something new and then try to sell it to each other, because few outsiders will come along for the ride. Addresses and branding are important, but we’re past the point where “the right URL” will make a business.
However, there is one major proviso.
The Real Next Thing -- It’s easy to judge from the perspective of 2011, having weathered both the NASDAQ implosion and the Great Recession, and to think that we were all a little batty in the 1990s. But the fact remains that many of the technologies we use daily were built or invented during that time—even if the people who ended up selling them to us weren’t the people who lost their shirts bringing them to market.
I’m reminded of my thought process back when I purchased the jeffporten.com domain. I’m an old-school Internet user, so I remember the days when TLDs actually meant something. Once upon a time, you actually had to run a network to be a .net, or have an actual nonprofit to be a .org. Then open registration came along and all three of these TLDs became a free-for-all.
Even so, I spent some time debating whether I should use jeffporten.com for my personal domain. Sure, I run my own business, but “Jeff Porten” isn’t the business; I’m just the engine. The domain, I thought, should be something that reflected my personhood rather than my role in a free market. .org and .net were even less apropos—so should I go with jeffporten.info? Or even jeffporten.name, the “official” TLD for individuals?
Of course, I went with jeffporten.com. Why? Because who the heck uses .name? (And as I say in my Web site’s tag line: “Because jeffporten.info is even more conceited.”) But by doing that, I’m buying into the Nob Hill theory that I ridiculed earlier. There is cachet to having the .com with your name on it, as a buddy named Greenberg will tell you since his own named domain was snapped up by a real estate agent.
This brings me to another bit of technology history. Way back in the 20th century, when area codes were assigned across the country, the technology of choice was something called a “rotary phone.” When you “dialed” a number, you turned an actual dial. Dialing a 9 took roughly nine times longer than dialing a 1. What’s less well-known is that this meant that some area codes were “better” than others: 212 was assigned to Manhattan because it was the fastest to dial. You can roughly rank the perceived importance of American cities at the time from their area codes: 212, Manhattan; 213, Los Angeles; 312, Chicago. (908: northern New Jersey.)
Zoom forward to the end of the 20th century, and we start running into an addressing problem: phone numbers after the area code can’t start with 1 or 0, so there are roughly 8 million phone numbers in any one area code. Start handing out fax machines and cell phones like candy, and that’s not such a large number anymore. Wikipedia now lists five different area codes for New York City alone. When the time came to stop giving out new 212 numbers, or to take away the area codes of people who had them already, folks fought tooth and nail to keep the better virtual real estate.
Today in the 21st century, I just Skyped a friend at his 404 Atlanta number, he texted me back at my 202 Washington DC number, and both of us are currently in San Francisco. Neither one of us lives in our area code—and there are enough people like us that there’s no longer much geographical meaning assigned to an area code. (Nor are long-distance fees a concern in the way they were when I was growing up.)
I expect that the current sense of normality surrounding .com will eventually go the way of the 212 pride of place. And it may very well be that one of the entrepreneurs in the .nxt conference room that day will be the one who creates the new normal, the next virtual Nob Hill. But I don’t expect that will happen by picking out the perfect word for the gTLD, nor with brilliant marketing, nor anything else in the usual bag of business tricks. In fact, I have no idea how it will happen.
Nevertheless, it will happen, so perhaps not everyone is batty for believing that they’ll be the one to do it.