x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Would a .rose by any other name still smell as sweet?

New top-level domain names will create more internet real estate, but are they be worth worrying about?

From AAA, for American Automobile Association, to Zulu, for I'm not quite sure what, the race has now officially begun for a new slice of the internet pie. Last month, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) published the list of 1,930 applications it had received for new "generic Top-Level Domain" names (gTLDs).

Don't let the jargon put you off. A TLD is the last part of an internet address, after the final full point, with the most famous being .com. And - despite the dotcom bust of a decade ago - plenty of people seem to think that they're worth a fortune. Or, at least, the investment of $185,000 (Dh680,000) upfront and $25,000 annually for a minimum of 10 years.

It will take some time to play out - up to two years, perhaps - but the obvious outcome for everyday internet users will be that we'll be able to type, for example, ".apple" into our browser, instead, of "apple.com", or have an email address like "joe@gmail" rather than "joe@gmail.com".

It hardly seems worth all the expense and effort. So, apart from the questionable need for more property in cyberspace, why are big players like Apple and Google, and a good number of non-technology companies, interested in all this?

First, they are protecting their brand names and intellectual property. Thus Amazon is laying claim to Kindle, Google is after Gmail, Microsoft is seeking the rights to Bing and Xbox, and General Motors wants Buick. Other names on the ICANN list include ABC, for the American television network, Visa, American Express, McDonald's (albeit without the apostrophe) and Walmart.

The name game is not just restricted to the English alphabet. There have been 116 applications for Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) in other scripts, mostly Chinese. Fifteen of them are for Arabic words, with two of those from UAE applicants: Etisalat and Abu Dhabi Systems and Information Centre.

So far, so good, so sensible. But, controversially, Amazon also wants to own genuinely generic TLDs such as "author", "book", "game", "mail", "movie", "music", "search", "shop", "song" and "video". Google wants more than 100 names - some of them also sought by Amazon or others - including the word "search", which, it could be argued, the term "Google" has already supplanted in the ordinary internet-user's lexicon.

It seems likely that many of these TLDs will be approved. Obviously, this is a nice little earner for ICANN, but it's hard to know what will be in it for some of the applicants. Aside from protecting their existing brands, which isn't legally necessary, some of them will want to resell names, in the same way commercial registries now sell .com, .net and .org names.

The wannabe new owners of .sex (there are two competing applicants) and .porn have obvious motives, but what is Amazon's strategy? Does it plan to sell .author names to writers, or .music to bands, or does it simply want to create myriad new web addresses all pointing to its own online shop?

It's instructive that some big names in business, including Coca-Cola and General Electric, have opted not to participate in this exercise.

Google's enthusiastic participation is particularly intriguing, since web search has more or less replaced the need for us to know the actual address we are seeking - just as we no longer need to know our friends' phone numbers, because they are stored in our mobile phones.

And just because Google's on board doesn't mean this is a good thing. Does anybody remember "Google Wave", which was so revolutionary and brilliant that nobody outside of Mountain View, California actually understood what it was meant to do?

Of course, I could be wrong; these new TLDs may revolutionise the way we use the web. And if I am wrong, I'll simply quote the writer William Goldman's observation about the film industry, which is even more relevant in the internet age: "Nobody knows anything."



On Twitter: @debritz

Ali Khaled will be back next week