Like a growing list of companies and independent software developers, RealNames (formerly called Centraal) is betting that by making its software freely available, it can hasten the technology's adoption.
Its success could have a dramatic impact on the way Web users find Web pages and how companies market their online properties, by allowing ordinary words to stand in for complex URLs, which point browsers to specific Web pages. The company's software is already featured on Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser but has faced hurdles in getting universally accepted.
In RealNames' example, a user can enter the RealNames keywords "Ford Explorer" in his or her browser instead of having to type in the URL "http://www.fordvehicles.com/vehiclehome.asp."
Unlike domain name registrar Network Solutions (NSI), which registers Net addresses with generic terms like "car," RealNames said it will not register a generic term.
Launched in 1997, RealNames devised a new top level for the system of naming Web addresses. The first level consists of numerical Internet protocol addresses (IP addresses), which were deemed too lengthy to remember. A second level of more easily remembered alphabetical addresses, based on domain names ending in suffixes like ".com," ".net," and ".edu," was borrowed from the email addressing system.
But that second level proved unwieldy on the Web as sites tacked on more and more suffixes to individual page addresses within their sites. RealNames' solution was to create a third layer of simple keywords to sell to firms and individuals.
"We want to eliminate the URL from the user experience," said Nico Popp, chief technology officer of RealNames. "The URL is great for the computer but lousy for the user. We don't want to remove it, and the URL is not going anywhere. This is just about creating a new layer on top that hides all the intricacies."
Some major firms have taken a fancy to the idea. eBay, for example, has hundreds of RealNames' keywords for individual pages within its site. RealNames collects fees on a per-keyword and per-lead basis.
Getting their attention
The trick, though, has been making those keywords widely available to individual Web users. In hopes of getting RealNames keywords to work wherever people are getting on the Web, RealNames will give away the software that lets developers of Web browsers, Web sites, and computer operating systems plug into its keyword database.
RealNames is especially hopeful that developers designing Web interfaces for handheld computers and other non-PC devices will hop on the RealNames bandwagon.
"We want to facilitate integration into Web applications, Web sites, and browsers, but we're also trying to go beyond the PC and put Internet keywords into all kinds of applications and devices," Popp said. "Keywords are the most natural way to navigate on the Internet, and they will naturally become the user interface for all these appliances."
RealNames tomorrow will demonstrate its technology working on Web devices from Netpliance and from Philips Electronics at the Internet World trade show in New York City.
For the software giveaway, RealNames has set up a Web site for developers, where they can access the application programming interfaces that will let them plug into RealNames' keyword database. The database includes Web site addresses and their keywords and will soon have more potentially valuable information, such as a company's geographical location. RealNames' database has about 1 million entries.
Like other open-source efforts, developers will be able to post their own improvements or implementations of the software for general use.
Standards group gets involved
In another step forward for simplified Web addresses, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international standards body, last week formed a working group devoted to devising a "common name resolution protocol," or a standard way of implementing Web keywords.
Both RealNames and NSI have submitted proposals to the IETF for such a protocol.
Although keywords depend on domain name-based addresses, RealNames' keywords pose some threat to NSI's domain names. NSI has responded to that threat by keeping RealNames close to the vest with an investment and partnerships.
RealNames has long shared its APIs with other firms, but only under the terms of an explicit relationship. Inktomi and Microsoft use the RealNames system in their search engine technology, and Microsoft's IE 5 browser lets users access RealNames pages through its address bar.
RealNames has been on a roll since the summer. It raised $70 million in private financing and changed its name from Centraal to the more descriptive RealNames in August. The company has signed partners including Ticketmaster, Infoseek, and BT and has shored up its executive team with numerous key appointments.
The company, which is privately held, currently is in a quiet period imposed by the Securities and Exchange Commissions (SEC). Companies typically enter a quiet period prior to significant financial developments, such as an initial public offering or a merger. RealNames would not say why it had entered the quiet period.
To achieve mainstream adoption of its addressing system, RealNames will have to educate users and change their habits. This task is easier when users can access the technology in their browser address bars.
Partnering with powerhouses
RealNames' most important coup may have been its deal with Microsoft to make RealNames keywords operate through the Internet Explorer address bar. Because Microsoft's IE browser has eclipsed Netscape's Communicator in market share, RealNames received a significant boost in its stated quest for ubiquity.
Convincing America Online to sign up will be a more formidable task. The reason is that AOL already boasts its own keyword system, which its Netscape division launched with great fanfare last year around the time it previewed the Communicator 4.5 browser.
Popp expressed optimism that RealNames' current negotiations with AOL will prove fruitful.
"Right now Netscape is monetizing a lot of the keywords, but the company is spending a lot of time creating them," Popp said. "They don't have a business model with subscription revenues. Instead, they decide what the keywords are and devote a lot of energy to doing that.
"We're telling them we're ready to do that for free, and to provide a more conprehensive database that will make them money. There are very compelling reasons for them to do that."
AOL declined to comment on its negotiations with RealNames.