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Web's major registrar turns phone numbers into Net names

VeriSign says it will offer a new service turning telephone numbers into Web addresses, hoping to ease the pain of having to type letters while Net surfing on a wireless phone.

The Web's biggest domain name registrar said Tuesday it would offer a new service turning telephone numbers into Web addresses, hoping to ease the pain of having to type letters while Net surfing on a wireless phone.

VeriSign's domain name registrar division opened a beta version of its WebNum service Tuesday, hoping to capture a new slice of the domain name market focused specifically on wireless Web surfing. In the process, it stands a chance of regaining a small portion of the monopoly it once had on worldwide domain name registration.

Like several other services on the market, the WebNum system is designed to ameliorate the difficulty of typing strings of letters such as "www.news.com" on a telephone keypad, in this case by substituting a telephone number or another numeric string. Critics of wireless Internet technology have said that this type of navigation headache has been one of the core hurdles to wider adoption of Web surfing on cell phones.

As the largest domain registrar in the world, VeriSign could have the market power to popularize this system where other shortcuts have failed to gain widespread traction. But analysts say the WebNum service is far from a silver bullet.

"It's kind of bizarre," said Philip Redman, research director for Gartner's wireless team. "It's hard enough to remember Web addresses...It seems like this is not intuitive enough to succeed."

Re-creating an empire
VeriSign's Network Solutions division was at one time the undisputed king of the domain name world, with a government-granted monopoly over registering and maintaining all names ending in .com, .net and .org. That monopoly ended when the U.S. government allowed other companies into the business and began the controversial process of finding new kinds of domain names, but VeriSign--which bought Network Solutions a year ago--still has a dominant position in the industry.

The company has actively been looking for ways to extend its business since the opening of the market. The WebNum project may be the most ambitious of these so far.

The company's plan is to create an entirely new type of Web address geared for wireless phones. Although hundreds of millions of people around the world are already familiar with ordinary URLs from the PC-based Internet, the company notes that there will be more than a billion cell phones in use around the world in just a few years. That alone is enough to have a system that caters to those types of surfers, the company said.

The WebNum system won't replace domain names altogether. A surfer trying to reach a Web site that has registered a telephone number or other number would first have to load the WebNum site itself on his or her mobile phone. That site would then prompt the surfer to enter a string of numbers and would then forward the phone to the Web site that had registered that address.

Unlike the ordinary domain name system, which is maintained through a publicly accessible set of servers around the world, VeriSign's would be a private system maintained only by the company itself. That means if someone had already registered 555-1234.com on the Internet, for example, that telephone number would still be available inside the WebNum system.

The company is also offering regular numbers, or what it calls Logo Numbers, to companies that want easy-to-remember shortcuts. These could include such addresses as "1" or "1000," for example. VeriSign is taking applications for these numbers until the end of April and will distribute popular numbers to the applications it believes will use the numbers in the most effective way, an executive said.

"We want people to use this," said Tim Griswold, marketing director for VeriSign's wireless division. "We don't want squatters."

Pricing for the system has yet to be determined. Telephone numbers registered before May 1 will be free until May 1, 2002. Prices for the Logo Numbers will be higher than for ordinary phone numbers, the company said.

The service will compete with other wireless shortcuts. RealNames offers a wireless version of its America Online-like keyword system to several wireless carriers, for example. Other, smaller companies have offered numerical domain names for sale that spell ordinary domain names such as News.com.

"Inputting (addresses) is definitely an obstacle, and URLS are increasingly complicated. Putting the two together makes for a lousy experience," said Mark Desautels, vice president of wireless Internet development for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "Anything that addresses that issue in a way that users can adopt is a good step."

Desautels stopped short of endorsing VeriSign's specific plans however, saying he hadn't yet studied the technology.

Staking claims
By launching this service now, VeriSign may be stepping into the territory of a larger industry group that is trying to link phone numbers and Web addresses more explicitly.

Dubbed Enum, that organization is in the early stage of developing technology standards that would give telephone numbers an actual presence on the Web. Rather than having to go through a middleman like VeriSign, this system would allow a Web surfer to reach someone directly at a telephone number using Internet protocols, for example. VeriSign is a founding member of this group as well.

But the WebNum system puts VeriSign a step ahead of that effort, long before it may reach public availability. By creating its own private registry of telephone numbers, VeriSign is effectively colonizing the universe of numerical names before it becomes a public reality.

Once the Enum technology launches, if it ever does, VeriSign will potentially start years ahead of competitors in managing that type of system. If WebNum proves popular, it will also have a huge database of numbers.

Nevertheless, analysts are skeptical as to whether a domain name registrar is the right one to be handling telephone numbers in the first place.

"When you look at all the third parties, it seems that there's too many intermediaries, all with their own Web sites," Gartner's Redman said. "I think it's an inconvenience. (Regular domain names) seem like they're still simpler than going to Web numbers."