June 25, 2012

LOOKING FOR .LOVE? How about .app or .web?

On Wednesday, ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) revealed the 1,930 applicants for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) — like .apple, .mom, or even .book. Currently, there are only 22 generic top-level domains, foremost among them .com. But the .com domain is getting crowded, with squatters increasingly making it costly for a new business to obtain the domain name it wants.

Rather than continue to dictate which new gTLDs were made available, ICANN decided to open applications for new gTLDs to everyone. This was not a cheap process — an application fee of $185,000 presented a serious barrier to frivolous applicants.

Although numerous tech giants — Google applied for 100 gTLDs, Apple for only one — threw themselves into the new top-level domain fray, some major players (Facebook, for instance) were conspicuously absent. The jury is out on whether this move will be the biggest shift in the Internet landscape since the introduction of .com in 1985, or a total bust.

The aim of the new gTLDs is to shift the way people think about accessing the Web and move beyond the straitjacket of .com. But for the ever-increasing number of people who use the Internet on their smartphones and depend on apps rather than browsers, this shift has already taken place, and a new and potentially confusing string of letters will do little to reverse it. Customers accustomed to reaching ad campaigns through QR codes may not think of typing in new URLs as a simpler way of reaching the desired brand, as gTLD-watchers seem to hope.

Perhaps some companies now vying for competitive gTLDs like .love and .app (13 applicants) will use the new space to create something innovative or to offer added security. But a massive number of applicants are brands that are simply purchasing their own names. Such a defensive purchase by a business seeking to protect the integrity of its brand in a new space costs money but generates no value. And what of the potential for scammers? Users are already fooled by scammers with only 22 sets of endings. What will happen to them when confronted with hundreds? Is barclays.bank legitimate? What about barclays.you? How many more addresses must legitimate businesses purchase to protect their brands?

We also have questions about what will happen when the dust settles over the contested domains (if ICANN finds that all the applicants for the contested slots have merit, they will go to auction, generating millions more dollars in revenue) and they finally become the property of businesses. With Amazon running its own subdomain registries for a string like .book, what will be the fate of writers seeking sites with the .book ending? Companies that purchase the gTLDs get to determine the prices at which addresses terminating in the new strings are sold — and if they are sold at all. And will users know that .grocery is not shared by all grocers but belongs specifically to Walmart or Safeway? Will this expansion create competition or stifle it?

One thing is sure: It is happening. Whether it is a recipe for creativity or chaos remains to be seen.