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Multilingual domain name usage lags

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Internationalized domain names have attracted great interest among non-English speaking users of the Internet and are a top priority for the 'Net's policymakers. But technical difficulties and a lack of industry standards are hampering corporate use of these names.

VeriSign Global Registry Services reports that it has sold one million internationalized domain names since it launched a testbed seven months ago. The majority of those names - about 80% - were sold in the first few weeks of availability and are for Asian languages.

Domain name registars report that sales of internationalized domain names have tapered off even though the testbed now supports characters used in 350 languages. VeriSign charges registrars $6 per internationalized domain name, but registrars mark up the price to around $35, which is the standard price for other names in the .com, .net and .org domains.

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Foreign speculators and small businesses are purchasing internationalized names, while sales to U.S. multinational companies are scarce, registrars say. Few of these companies are using internationalized domain names because they have proven too difficult for end users to navigate.

"We have not had a large outcry from our customer base for multilingual domain names," says Eric Brown, director of operations at, which counts Revlon and Amway among its customers. decided not to participate in VeriSign's testbed because "VeriSign had no way to resolve the names . . . We felt it was premature."

Until recently, Internet users who wanted to resolve internationalized domain names had to download software that let their Web browsers recognize non-ASCII characters. VeriSign offers software plug-ins from International and Walid that convert non-English character domain names into ASCII equivalents for transmission over the Internet.

So far, use of these plug-ins has been limited. Walid Director Doug Hawkins says less than 100,000 people - a small fraction of Internet users - have downloaded its free software to access internationalized domain names.

"There's a lot of confusion yet as to how the names will actually work," Hawkins says. "That's keeping the practical usage of these domain names [far] away."

In June, VeriSign announced a deal with RealNames and Microsoft that eases the resolution of internationalized domain names. Now users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 browser can automatically resolve internationalized domain names by using keyword technology from RealNames instead of a software plug-in.

The MSN Search function recognizes an internationalized domain name and forwards it to RealNames' servers. RealNames translates the internationalized domain name characters into ASCII equivalents for transmission over the Internet. The translation process is transparent to the end user.

VeriSign officials say the RealNames technology will work with all the internationalized domain names already sold through its testbed.

"This service enhancement provides for commercial use of those names in a way that's transparent for end users," says Tom Newell, vice president of internationalized domain name services at VeriSign. Newell says these names are now "viable and resolvable."

Neither end users nor Web site operators need to pay additional fees to use the RealNames technology to resolve internationalized domain names. Instead, the financial agreement is between VeriSign and RealNames, whose owners include VeriSign and Microsoft.

"In the past, a company would have been [reluctant] to publicize an internationalized domain name," says Keith Teare, RealNames CEO. "Now it's possible for companies to promote Web addresses using foreign character sets like a normal dot-com name."

The VeriSign/RealNames deal is viewed as a stopgap measure until a standard method for encoding and transmitting internationalized domain names is developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF effort is several months behind schedule because of patent claims filed earlier this year by Walid relating to the resolution of internationalized domain names. The IETF's working group recently decided that the Walid patent doesn't apply to its work. So it is now finalizing a set of protocols that has the most support within the group. A decision on these protocols should be made by August.

U.S. multinational companies seem willing to wait for the IETF standard before rolling out internationalized domain names.

"Companies are very keen on ensuring that there's a single standard that's used so there's no confusion for end users or interoperability problems," says Theresa Swinehart, an attorney with WorldCom and a member of the business constituency that advises the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. "They're looking forward to seeing the final efforts of the IETF working group."

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Contact Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Other recent articles by Marsan

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Read how a government study of the Internet domain name system forecasts the next 10 years and link to our domain-name breaking news

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