Internet policymakers appear to be in the home stretch on a controversial plan to add hundreds of new domain name extensions -- such as .nyc, .africa and .sport -- that could forever alter the e-commerce landscape.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) says it will post online Nov. 9 what it hopes will be the final version of its guidebook for organizations applying for new top-level domains (TLDs).
"We're going to be posting it soon, and depending on the public comments we get, and how quickly we can address the overarching issues, we hope to be wrapping it up," says ICANN spokeswoman Michele Jourdan.
ICANN's board expects to approve the latest version of the applicant guidebook at its next meeting, which will be held in Cartagena de Indias, Columbia, from Dec. 5 to 10.
If the applicant guidebook is approved, ICANN says it will begin accepting applications for new TLDs in May 2011.
Industry observers predict that new domains could become operational in 2012.
"The ICANN Board is really ramping up their efforts to get this done. They are putting the finishing touches on the issues they've been wrestling with such as trademark protection and vertical integration. With the next version of the applicant guidebook, they're about to put a stake in the ground on all of those issues," says Roland LaPlante, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Afilias, which is the registry operator for 15 domains including .info and .asia.
"ICANN has been working on this applicant guidebook for new [TLDs] for quite some time, and they've done a very nice job of addressing any expected issue that could come up: trademark protection, scaling of the root, security considerations," says Lance Wolak, director of marketing and product management for .org, the Public Interest Registry. "There continues to be commenting going on in the ICANN community in getting these open issues resolved. I really think they are very close."
ICANN has been talking about adding hundreds of new TLDs since its inception in 1998. Since then, ICANN has twice opened up the Internet landscape to new domains. In 2000, ICANN added seven extensions including .info and .biz, and in 2004 ICANN added six more extensions including .asia and .jobs.
None of the new extensions has been wildly successful.
Today, the Internet has 21 generic top-level domains and another 250 country-code top-level domains. Yet almost half of the 196.3 million registered domain names across all top-level domains are in .com, the original designation for companies doing business on the Internet.
"Only .info, .biz and .mobi ever got above a million names of the 15 new TLDs," LaPlante admits. "But registrations aren't the only measure of success. The Catalan community is thrilled with .cat, which has 20,000 or 30,000 names. They are very proud of their success. Other TLDs seem to have lost their way, like .pro, which had a pretty cool business plan and a pretty cool vision but never caught on."
Whether or not the latest round of new TLDs will be successful remains to be seen.
ICANN says the new TLDs will provide more innovation, choice and competition on the Internet, especially for non-English language speakers. The new domains can be anywhere from three to 63 characters in length and can support Chinese, Arabic and other scripts.
So far, dozens of groups have announced plans to apply for new TLDs, including cities like .paris and .berlin, regions such as Latin America's .lat, and charities such as .unicef
Existing registries say that the new domains that are likely to be successful are those that introduce new ideas into the Internet, rather than those that copy existing domains.
"Hopefully, ICANN will get a wide range of applications from all kinds of creative new things, causes and geographies," LaPlante says. "Every major brand ought to be looking at it."
Wolak is intrigued by the idea of internationalized domain names, which are in foreign language characters rather than their ASCII approximations.
"One of the new TLDs that we at .org are very interested in is a fully internationalized domain name," Wolak says. "We're interested in launching a few variations of.org in different character strips. That's something that's new and different and doesn't have a long history or entrenched competitors. And it opens up the domain space to new languages."
ICANN anticipates receiving anywhere from 300 to 1,000 applications for new domain name extensions.
"ICANN already said they will not put more than 1,000 TLDs in the root in any given year," LaPlante says. "But that's a big change given that there are only 271 in the entire root now."
ICANN's latest efforts to expand the Internet's Domain Name System could have a significant impact on multinationals. Already, tax giant Deloitte and camera manufacturer Canon have announced plans to apply for extensions using their company names. IBM is said to be considering applying for .ibm.
Companies and other organizations will need to spend $185,000 to apply for a new TLD, with no guarantee of approval.
"I'm seeing a lot more companies exploring the concept," LaPlante says. "I think they are better off to go than not to go…because they have the opportunity now to get their names in a TLD, and they have no requirement that they use it aside from having a few names resolve. If they sit on the sidelines, or find out that two or three of their competitors applied, they could be at a competitive disadvantage for some time. ICANN says they are rolling the TLD window open now, but they haven't said when they'll open it again."