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Mobile

Telecoms' power blocks wireless domain rush

The scramble for numerical Web addresses geared toward mobile phone users may well dissolve into irrelevancy before it ever really begins.

Australian Graham Saywell had an idea last year that seemed like a sure-fire winner: With Net access via mobile phones gaining in popularity, why not register a slew of domain names that could serve as shortcuts to the wireless Web and sell them to the highest bidder?

He worked fast, buying close to 1,000 numerical Web addresses that would spell common, useful words using the letters on a telephone keypad. Thus, News.com translated to 6397.com, and Movies.com to 668437.com.

Unfortunately for Saywell and others with a similar idea, the land rush for key domain names that marked the mid-1990s is not paying dividends in the wireless arena. The chief reason: Navigating the Web with a mobile phone is more difficult than with a PC. This gives the wireless companies more control over the sites people are likely to visit and diminishes the value of easy-to-remember Web names.

For example, typing www.yahoo.com into a PC is relatively easy. But on a cell phone, it can take a minute or more to enter a simple Web address into the small numerical keypad. As a result, wireless navigation is more menu driven, with the carriers determining the Web sites that get top billing. Catchy domains such as movies.com or mp3.com can become harder to access than the movie or music sites favored by the wireless company.

"I'm glad I didn't invest in that one," said International Data Corp. analyst Iain Gillot, when told of Saywell's plans. "It is difficult to get around now, sure, but bookmarks are what you want. And later (the market) will go to better devices, better integration and things like voice recognition."

Carriers playing kingmakers
It's far too early to declare anyone a winner in the rapidly developing field of wireless Web access. But there's no question that the big carriers--Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless and their rivals--already are playing kingmakers in the field.

These companies have several advantages: First, they serve as the ISPs in the wireless world, so they control the start-up screens on mobile phones. And unlike surfing the Web on an ordinary PC, it's very hard to change the first page you see on a wireless phone.

Moreover, the difficulty of navigating around the Web using a telephone keypad instead of a keyboard and mouse solidifies their power. It is possible to type in a full URL on a phone, but it's awkward, and carriers like Sprint have made it difficult to find the place to do this.

By contrast, simply clicking on the bookmarks provided by Sprint or another carrier is simple.

This dynamic has changed the way companies are looking to capture online fame and fortune. In the Old World, a good domain name could mean traffic galore. A deal with Yahoo or America Online was the next Holy Grail for an ambitious Web company, although these too have proved less successful than many firms hoped.

In the wireless world, the goal is simple: Partner with Sprint, AT&T or one of the other large companies. Then watch the traffic roll in. This is expensive--hundreds of thousands of dollars per quarter, sources say--but it's the best way to reach consumers' fingertips today.

Technology changes, power remains
The game may change in the future, of course. Input technologies for phones are getting better, wireless connections are getting faster, and the business is changing rapidly. But insiders say that the domain name rush isn't likely to pick up.

"I believe that very few people will type URLs on the phone," said Ben Linder, vice president for Phone.com, which creates the Web browser system used by most large carriers. "Our research shows that most consumers use about 8 to 10 services on their phones and bookmark those."

Phone.com and others are creating technology that will make it easier to navigate around the wireless Web with voice commands, saying "back," "forward" or "Go to News.com," instead of typing in Web addresses, for example.

This technology will help break some of the carrier's lock on navigation systems. But the phone companies will still hold the strongest hands in the business, analysts say.

Much of the convenience of wireless information services--information about local traffic, nearby restaurants, movies or other services--will come from the network's ability to determine where a caller is at any given time. The carriers will be able to share that with their partners, but not necessarily with other nonaffiliated wireless Web sites, analysts note.

That means that the bookmark deals with carriers will likely still be the center of wireless Web navigation, many predict.

"I'll actually, through convenience, in a way be forced into using that site," Gillot said.

While the market moves in a new direction, the people who have registered wireless-specific domain names are still hoping to cash in somehow.

Sony, which last year registered 68742.com--the numerical version of music.com--didn't return calls for comment. But it renewed its ownership of the domain in January, according to Network Solutions' online database.

Saywell and his parent company, Domain Numbers, are launching a version of their idea soon with Australian names, hoping to spark interest in their shortcuts. Going to 6937.com.au (news.com.au) on a wireless phone will soon bring up a list of links to wireless news sites, for example.

After that, the plan is still to hope that the market shifts in their direction.

"We're still a little up in the air," Saywell said. "It's still a ways in the future before this becomes a reality."

Saywell and Sony also are battling another issue: the operating system used in many mobile phones automatically translates numbers to letters when entering Web addresses. As a result, typing in Sony's numerical "music" domain actually appears as mtpga.com.

Will this represent the next wave of hot domains? At least one person thinks so: mtpga.com has already been taken and is for sale.