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IETF wraps up foreign-language domain name effort

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah - The Internet's main standards-setting body is putting the final touches on a set of specifications that will support foreign-language domain names instead of today's English language derivatives.

Called Internationalized Domain Name (IDN), the new specifications are eagerly awaited by domain name registries and registrars, which anticipate a huge market opportunity in Europe and Asia. Once these names are operational, multinational corporations can create native-language Web sites for marketing their products in each of the countries where they do business.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has been working on the controversial IDN specifications for two years, and completing them is one of the organization's top priorities.

The IETF's IDN Working Group held a meeting here this week to finish its scheme for converting foreign-language characters into US ASCII equivalents for transmission over the Internet's Domain Name System. The working group is now ready to send three documents outlining the technical details of their approach to the full IETF and the IETF leadership for final approval. A proposed standard could be released as early as March, IETF participants say.

"Our basic architecture is done. We just have to forward the documents for final approval," says Marc Blanchet, co-chair of the working group and an IT consultant with Canadian firm Viagenie. "We've really been under a great deal of scrutiny and review [by the IETF leadership], so my guess is that there will be no problems."

Harald Alvestrand, chair of the IETF and an engineer with Cisco Systems, admits that the IETF's IDN approach won't solve the browsing problems of all Internet users around the world, but he says it is technically sound.

"It's not what people started out looking for, which is a painless solution that works for everyone," Alvestrand says. "This solution will irritate a lot of people a lot of the time...[because] it won't be transparent. People will have to have special software or they'll see cryptic strings in their browsers. But I don't think it will do any active harm to the Internet."

Once it is released as a proposed standard, the IDN technology is expected to have an immediate impact on the domain name industry because it can be used for foreign-language top-level domains as well as domain names.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers [ICANN], which oversees the domain name system, has been holding off most registries and registrars from offering foreign-language domain names until the IETF develops a standardized approach.

VeriSign Global Registry Services, which operates the dot-com, dot-net and dot-org domains, has been offering foreign-language domain names for a year using software plug-ins and keywords to resolve the names. But VeriSign has promised to migrate one million foreign-language names it has sold to the IETF's IDN standard when it is released.

"There are 20-odd registries that are operational in VeriSign's IDN testbed. They have the transition mechanisms in place, so they can move [to the IETF's IDN standard] pretty quickly," says Rick Wesson, an IETF participant who develops software for domain name registries and registrars with Alice's Registry.

What needs to happen next is for application software developers to incorporate the IDN specifications in Web browsers, e-mail clients and network administration software. Microsoft, for example, has said it will support the IETF's IDN standard in its Internet Explorer.

Despite its promise, the IETF's IDN technology will leave some Internet users unsatisfied. For example, it doesn't help Chinese Internet users cope with the translation between traditional and simplified character sets in their language. Nor does it address Chinese, Korean and Japanese characters that look the same but have different meanings.

These Asian language problems stem from Unicode, a computer industry standard for representing language characters that was developed with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The IETF's IDN technology uses Unicode.

"The Chinese have a real problem, but because the root of their problem is ISO and Unicode actions taken 10 years ago, the IETF can't fix their problem without breaking Unicode," says Paul Hoffman, one of the authors of the IETF's IDN approach.

At the same time the IETF is wrapping up work on IDN, it is considering launching an effort to create a new search service on top of the Internet's domain name system that could fix the Asian language problems among other domain name issues.

The Internet Resource Name Search Service (IRNSS) would provide context and location matching to help end users find the right Web sites. It also would allow more than one company to own a particular domain name, such as Delta.com, by asking users if they are interested in airline tickets or faucets.

"IRNSS solves the IDN problems, solves the whole problem with domain names and makes trademark lawyers happy," says Michael Mealling, a proponent of IRNSS and an engineer with VeriSign. Mealling says the IRNSS development effort would take about a year.

Regardless of where they stand on the IRNSS and IDN approaches, most IETF participants anticipate a huge pent-up demand for foreign-language domain names. Alvestrand, for example, says his son can now have an e-mail address that reflects the true spelling of his first name.

"I can't wait to register my company's domain name with the accent over the e," Blanchet says. "That's been a dream of mine for 10 years."

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