New domains face an uncertain future

The problem with last month’s decision by the organization that manages the Internet domain name system to add seven new top-level domains (TLD) is that no one really knows whether it’s a gift or a curse.

Will the addition of domains such as .biz and .museum make it easier for users to navigate the Internet, or will that become more confusing? And for businesses, will the expanded number of TLDs give them a better chance at getting desirable URLs or complicate the process of protecting their corporate trademarks? The answers are far from clear, according to analysts and corporate IT managers.

“This is not created to make an average company’s life easier – absolutely not,” said Audrey Apfel, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “I think it makes life worse.” Obtaining URLs under the new domains will be an expensive proposition: Gartner estimates companies will spend an average of about US$70,000 to maintain a domain-name strategy that would include registering variants of the names they want to protect.

And whether companies will even use the domain names they buy is unclear. In the commercial space, said David Scott Lewis, an analyst at Stamford-based Meta Group Inc., the argument between the established .com domain and the upstart .biz TLD “is kind of a moot point – .com is it.”

“If .biz just becomes a mirror image of .com, then I don’t know what real purpose it will serve,” agreed Bruce Manning, an information systems manager at AMI Aircraft Seating Systems, a Colorado Springs, Colo., maker of aircraft seats.

In last week’s decision, the board of directors of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) also approved the addition of .info, .name, .pro, .aero and .coop domains. ICANN still needs to complete negotiations with the companies and organizations that are looking to manage registries for the new TLDs, and the domains aren’t expected to come on-line until the middle of next year.

When that happens, the new domains are “probably going to be very confusing to everyone, at least to begin with,” said Bobby Chowdhury, chief technology officer at United Media Inc. in New York. The domains may have some value down the road, Chowdhury said, but for now he doesn’t see them benefitting his company.

The group selected by Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based ICANN to run the .biz domain said it plans to make that domain what .com was originally intended to be – “a space on the Internet specifically for business,” said Ken Hansen, director of corporate development at NeuStar Inc. in Washington. NeuStar and Melbourne IT Ltd. in Melbourne, Australia, will run the .biz registry through a new joint venture called NeuLevel LLC.

A .biz registrant will have to self-certify that it’s a business or that it intends to use the domain for commercial purposes, Hansen said. Moreover, he said, NeuLevel is proposing to ICANN that its domain name dispute-resolution procedures be amended to allow a business to challenge the ownership of a domain name if it isn’t being used for commercial purposes.

Richard Villars, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said the new domains may improve the process that users have to go through to find information on the Internet, as long as the new domains don’t become corrupted with improper registrations. “Shortcuts like this . . . will make life easier over time,” he said.

But David Curle, a director and lead analyst at Outsell Inc., a consultancy in Burlingame, Calif., said he wonders how end users will know whether to type in .com, .biz or some other URL suffix to find the Web sites they’re looking for. “The result is going to be a very haphazard collection of domains that is really going to create more confusion than anything else,” Curle said.

While there’s no doubt that speculators will also move in to buy domain names under the new TLDs, doing so will be “extraordinarily risky” in some cases, said Michael Mann, CEO of LLC, a Bethesda, Md., company that sells domain names. “Speculation in .com names is, for the most part, not profitable for most people,” Mann said.