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Apple's new domain names spark interest

The company this week registers several Net domain names that could be related to a retail venture wherein Apple would open stores that feature only Apple and related-Mac products.

Anecdotal evidence continues to build suggesting that Apple Computer is readying a foray into the world of retail.

The company this week registered several Net domain names that could be related to a retail venture wherein Apple would open stores that feature only Apple and related-Mac products.

Apple secured the domain names Shop-Different.com and Buy-Different.com, both of which currently lead to the company's main Web page. The company also registered Apple-Store.net, which is a variation on the company's current Apple Store.

Apple's plans for the domain names is unclear. Apple could not be reached for comment by press time.

The domain name registrations comes at a time when the company has been sharing ideas with potential partners and hiring new executives to flesh out plans for retail stores.

Apple yesterday confirmed that it recently hired Allen Moyer, a former Sony executive involved in retail development projects, including the futuristic Metreon retail-entertainment complex in San Francisco. Industry observers say moves such as this one are a strong indication that the company is interested in creating retail outlets.

It is possible that new Apple sites could merely be used to augment its online store. But they could also be used for customers placing orders from a retail kiosk, for one example.

Newly registered domain names can be strong indications of a company's planned course of action. In one example, telecommunications firm MCI registered the domain name "skytelworldcom.com" in May, sparking speculation that the company would purchase paging company Skytel. MCI unregistered the name and claimed that it wasn't an indication of any planned moves, but three days later, it announced it was acquiring Skytel for $1.8 billion.

Just as often, though, a company will register a domain name merely to protect trademarks or its public image, and sometimes names go unused altogether. Politicians have been known to do the same thing.

To beat Net name poachers, for instance, Micron Electronics owns "micronPCsucks.com" and Dell has registered "WebPCsucks.com." The WebPC is an upcoming consumer computer from Dell due to be launched later this month.

While some companies wait to register names until the last minute so as to keep plans secret, Apple's own habits in the recent past have been to register groups of names and hold on to them. Few of its recent registrations have been tied into new product launches or other initiatives.

Apple could fashion the retail outlets in a fashion similar to Gateway's Country Stores, analysts say. Gateway's stores feature its products in displays targeted at specific market segments such as home and office users, and offer services and related equipment.

"For [Apple] to increase market share, they really need more channels of distribution," said David Goldstein president of Channel Marketing, a retail consultancy.

In the past, Apple's relations with resellers has at times been strained. He notes that Apple dropped national retailer Best Buy then re-signed them in 1998, only to have the stores drop Apple products again after disputes regarding how the chain would merchandise iMacs. Do that often enough, and new partners may be reluctant to sign on, Goldstein said.

"Maybe in the end they will be forced to go into the retail business. If they don't do it well, it could be a disaster," he said.

Apple does have history to learn from.

Apple's latest retail plans could conceivably mimic those that it has in place in Australia. In 1997, Apple started up independently owned franchises called "Apple Centres." These stores only carry Apple and Mac-related products in configurations targeted to market segments such as home and small office.

At the time, the outlets were opened in areas underserved by traditional resellers. The company, which now boasts 62 outlets, has since partnered with nationwide chains to offer its products as well, which has resulted in some conflict with its store partners, but sales have been improving in Australia.

For the quarter ending June 1999, Apple's Asia Pacific average unit sales growth exceeded 40 percent, the company has said, which doubled analyst forecasts for average PC sales growth in the region. Replicating that success will be difficult in the United States, where the company has better distribution through retail partners, who could potentially get upset at any perceived direct competition from Apple.