A simpler Net address system

A Silicon Valley start-up wants to give Web sites "real names," serving as an alternative to the current domain naming system.

Silicon Valley start-up Centraal wants to give Web sites "real names" and give Web surfers another way of finding popular sites.

The company wants to give easily identifiable names to Web sites and help users avoid long URLs. Companies and Net users alike have long complained about the cumbersome domain naming system that requires users to type in "www" before and ".com," ".net," or another suffix after the name.

Centraal's product is aimed at giving companies new marketing tools that make it easier for Netizens to find them.

For example, a page about a specific product that would normally be buried several layers down on a company's site could instead be found by typing "Joe's Widget" into the browser URL space instead of the extended "www.joesoftware.com/applications/widget."

Centraal plans to make money by selling the real names to sites for $40 per year. Sites that draw heavy traffic, however, will likely be charged an additional fee for every visitor over a certain limit. (A real name does not replace a URL. Companies will still have to register their domain names with the InterNIC and create traditional URLs.)

Centraal is not the first to enter this space. Netword launched a similar product in August that lets users type in a keyword instead of a whole domain name. Net users have to download free software to use the system, and to be included Web sites have pay a small registration fee: $1 per month per keyword for personal home pages and $5 per keyword for companies.

Unlike the Internet's current naming system, Centraal's system is not first-come, first-served. The company will reserve the right to assign names as it sees fit. For example, the real name "bambi" would likely go to a page about Disney's animated movie, not to the pornography site "bambi.com," said Centraal founder Keith Teare, even if bambi.com has been long established.

Many Net users were confused today after a Reuters story (posted for a short time on CNET's NEWS.COM) said that users could simply type "bambi" into their browsers to access Disney's information about its character. The system will not work on browsers as they exist today without additional software.

However, Centraal would like to integrate its service into the next generation of browsers and popular search engines. Until such integration happens, a user must download a plug-in to take advantage of real names.

If browser and search engine integration happens, it could raise the ire of sites whose corresponding real names are taken by someone else. If, for example, the majority of browsers and directories automatically directed users who type "bambi" as a keyword to the Disney movie site, bambi.com might be able to raise legal issues.

Legal questions aside, one executive at domain name registry Network Solutions questioned the long-term value of such a service.

"It's valuable if a large percentage of the people who are expected to have a trademark don't actually have that domain," said senior vice president Donald Telage. "But in the last six months, we've seen a huge number of companies in .com getting the domains that match their trademarks."

As of tomorrow, users can test the system by going to "www.realnames.com" and downloading a plug-in.

For the system to work seamlessly, browser makers will have to build Centraal's software into their products. Centraal also would like to license its code to search engines, which then would allow users either to search for Centraal's real names in a different window or incorporate those names into their regular search results.

Centraal will not provide any end-user services; instead, it will rely on third parties to give users access to Centraal's server-side naming system. Centraal uses XML, or extensible markup language, to assign not just the real name but also a flexible list of properties, such as description, author, traffic flow, and language, associated with a Web page.

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