The Web’s greatest asset, its World Wide reach, is dependent not only on the luxury of computer accessibility but also to a growing extent on the mastery of the English language. It is estimated that although only five percent of the world's population use English as a first language, almost three-quarters of all websites are written in English, the official language of the Internet.
The search for a way to register non-English domain names started with the intention of bridging digital divides, making sure no one is left behind as Western economies increasingly use the Internet for commerce, government and education. But this evolution requires overcoming significant technological obstacles.
In order to be stored in the Domain Name System (DNS), Internet addresses must consist entirely of ASCII (Roman) characters. If one wishes to register Arabic character domain name, it is required to convert the Arabic strings to a valid ASCII equivalent, and look it up in the ordinary DNS file.
As soon as word of this multilingual possibility came out, numerous companies rushed to market their competing technologies to dozens of Internet domain name registrars around the world, and the race for the dollars was on. They aggressively advertise and market the registration of multilingual domain names, primarily appealing to multinational corporations looking to extend their trademark and brand to other languages.
In its latest release, Pyramid Research reveals that over the past six months, 75,000 companies and individuals have rushed to register an Arabic URL address, in a what is becoming a virtual stampede to stake claims to the newly found cyber-territory of multilingual domain names.
Pyramid Research estimates that by 2003, the Arabic domain names market will be worth over $126 million within the Arab world alone. Nearly ninety percent of the market is expected to be evenly divided between the populous Egypt and the affluent GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Other sources of demand have been identified in North Africa and the Levant, with Morocco and Lebanon contributing the lion's share.
Everyone wants a chunk of this potentially lucrative market, which stands to boost Internet adoption across the Middle East and North Africa. However, “potentially” is a key word here, as none of this activity has yet been given the blessing of the official Internet-naming body, the US-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. A word of warning is therefore in order — multilingual domain names should be considered provisional in this initial phase, as they may become invalid with the emergence of a standard technology for translating Internet addresses.
In its innovative regional survey, Pyramid Research identifies the emerging market players. The frontrunner in the race to win a critical mass of registrants is the California-based Nativenames.net, which has registered in the past two months more than 50,000 Arabic domain names. As a back-end solution provider, Nativenames only signs up the region's ISP’s and provides them with a platform that enables their portals to sell the Arabic domain names at a standard rate of $35. The significantly smaller I-dns.net is Nativenames’ rival in this arena of back-end solutions. Walid.com is the leading front-end solution provider—uploading the requisite software to individual users. It currently controls 18 percent of the market, according to the Pyramid survey.
Registering multilingual domain names is rapidly becoming a hot topic and threatens to open up the congested global top-level domain system all over again, raising a new round of trademark issues such as cyber-squatting — the practice of registering domain names to extort payment from trademark holders. International rules state that neither brand names nor variations of them can be traded, but there is currently nothing stopping the registration of these names.
With no one waiting for ICANN to appoint central registries for the new multilingual domain name system, the result is confusion both for Internet surfers, who can't always find the sites they want or freely enter them, and for Web-site owners who have to register their non-English addresses with multiple registrars.
In this air of uncertainty, Pyramid Research forecasts that the Arabic domain name players may eventually have to try out creative spin-off ventures, which will enable them to leverage their knowledge base in other applications. — (Albawaba-MEBG)
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