In 2014, the renaming of the Net has begun in earnest.
A dramatic liberalization of the Internet address system means that people can set up websites and email addresses ending in .photography, .london, .gift, .beer and .restaurant. And since they started arriving early in 2014, the virtual land grab has begun in earnest.
Starting in February, 469 of these new names arrived, says the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ( ICANN), a nonprofit organization that oversees the system. As of December 18, people have registered 3.6 million Internet domains using the new names, according to a tally by GreenSec Solutions' NTLDstats site.
The addresses are called generic top-level domains (GTLDs), and their debut is part of ICANN's years-long plan to introduce new virtual real estate on the Net. There were only 22 such domains beforehand -- the familiar .com, .net and .org among them -- but now it's time to get used to a huge number of new alternatives.
With the GTLD expansion, people can identify themselves by profession -- for instance, .photography, .florist, .realtor, .pizza and .plumber. They can indicate where they live or do business -- for instance, .nyc, .paris, .london and .berlin. And they no longer have to rely on Latin-based alphabets and keyboards, which is why the very first new GTLDs that arrived were in Russian, Chinese and Arabic.
The new Internet domains also brought problems, however, by increasing the potential for brand name trademark violations. Whether for these defensive reasons or for better promotion or branding possibilities, 13 of the 15 biggest US brands have applied to use their names. Those include .apple, .google, .ibm, .microsoft, .ge, .mcdonalds, .intel, .cisco and .amazon. Coca-Cola and Disney are holdouts so far, according to the Trademark Clearinghouse, a new group established to iron out domain-name disputes and, when possible, nip them in the bud.
How new TLDs arrive
There are three big steps to bringing a new name to the world. First, an organization must apply to ICANN -- paying a $185,000 application fee -- to operate a registry that will make the new domain available. Second, ICANN must approve it, a process that can involve auctions when multiple parties want the same address. Third, companies like GoDaddy and 1and1 Internet, called registrars, enable customers to register subdomains like magicam.photos or tinyfield.farm.
ICANN only accepted applications for a few months, but that was enough for 1,930 applications. The top applicant was a startup called Donuts, which sought to operate registries for 307 domains. Next on the list were Google (101 applications) and Amazon (76 applications).
Those eager to get on board with a registry of their own will have to be patient. The next application window likely will open in 2017 or 2018, according to Akram Atallah, president of ICANN's global domains division.
What are the most popular new GTLDs? The top one, by far, is .xyz, which drew more than 726,000 registered domains, indicating that there's a lot of demand for an open-ended term. Next, in descending order of popularity, are .berlin at 154,000, .club at 140,000, .realtor at 85,000, .wang at 84,000, .guru at 76,000, and .nyc at 59,000, according to the Trademark Clearinghouse.
It's remarkable growth, but it should be put into perspective. As of December, there were 915,780,262 websites on the Internet, according to a monthly tally by NetCraft. Note also that not all registered domains have websites associated with them.
Dueling for domains
There's contention over some top-level domain names. The most hotly contested is .app. Google, Amazon and 10 other organizations are vying to operate the .app registry. Such disputes are settled through auctions, and the .app auction is set for February 25.
Those auctions can be a lot more expensive than the $185,000 application fee and the $25,000 a year that registries must pay ICANN. On Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson won a six-party auction for .baby with a bid of $3,088,888, and the Canadian Real Estate Association outbid one rival to claim .mls by paying $3,359,000.
Other hot GTLDs coming up for auction include .inc with 11 applicants, .blog with nine applicants, .movie with eight applicants, .store with seven applicants and .game or .games with six applicants. Another item of note: Because ICANN prohibits domains that sound similar, another February 25 auction will pit .unicorn against .unicom. The contenders are China United Network Communications Corporation -- China Unicom for short -- and European computing company Unicorn.
Many more will deal with GTLDs by registering their subdomains. Prices vary, but one Web-hosting company, OVH, charges €0.99, or $1.22, to register a .ovh domain for the first year and double that to renew. Curiously, that business got its start when company founder and Chief Executive Octave Klaba announced the .ovh domain as an April Fool's prank in 2009 but still attracted 22,000 registration requests.
"We want to make domain names accessible to as many people as possible, and always at the best price. That's why .ovh will be one of the most affordable extensions on the market," the company said.
It's true that domain names are mere labels -- convenient collections of letters, numbers and punctuation to get us the data we want on the Internet. But given the excitement and friction surrounding the new domain-name program, it's clear those names hold great importance.