Users will now have to wait until the end of the year for a decision from Icann (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) on what new top-level domain name alternatives to .com and .net will be made available to them.
The US non-profit making organisation, which controls international web addresses, asked for views on the subject in June and has received 1300 responses to date. Following a meeting in Japan this weekend, many web users were expecting Icann to tell the world what new domain names it had decided on, with .shop and .travel anticipated as front-runners.
Although it did approve an expansion of the system, Icann simply said that those wanting to adopt new top-level addresses should apply to do so by the end of September. New domain names and registrars will not be named until 20 November.
It's a jungle out there
But UK web firms showed little interest in the move. Steve Bennett, chief executive of web retailer Jungle.com, said he would stand by the company's brand no matter what domain names became available.
"We have got lots of Jungles already - .co.uk, .com.au [the Australian equivalent of .co.uk] - but, in reality, we will always push the .com. If .shop came up and the price was right, we would buy it. You buy them to protect yourself, but we will only use Jungle.com," he said.
The company spent about £170,000 to buy its name, and another £4.8m promoting it during the 12 months to the end of March.
Charles Fallon, chief executive of pet goods ecommerce site Petspyjamas.com, said: "We use .com because the world's got used to it," adding that the introduction of new domain names would need to be accompanied by a customer education campaign. "Otherwise, think of the chaos we had with changing phone numbers."
Internet bank Smile.co.uk, which owns hundreds of connected URLs, said it is monitoring the situation but has no plans to take any action as yet. "It's far too early to make any strategic decisions," said Keith Girling, director of technology for Smile's parent, the Co-operative Bank.
Analysts were equally cautious. Martha Bennett, vice president of Giga Information, suggested that organisations should attempt to find suitable .com or .co.uk names rather than wait for new top-level domain names. ".shop is kind of useful, but most retailers are recognised through their brand names," she said. "It's about the brand more than the suffix, especially with bricks and clicks companies."
But Sarah Skinner, European internet analyst for ecommerce merchant bank Durlacher, believes that new domain names may be useful to provide the public with information about the nature of a site, particularly in light of the relative increase of .co.uk registrations over .com ones. ".com doesn't tell you anything," she said. "It was a bit of a phase - an indication of a grandiose idea that you had to be global."
However, the take-up of alternative commercial domain names does not appear to have been a huge success in the UK. Various alternatives to .co.uk, which was introduced in 1986, were followed 10 years later by such addresses as .ltd.uk and .plc.uk. Unusually, the UK uses second-level domains - including .co, .org and even .nhs for the health service - while most other countries just use their country code.
But statistics from Nominet, which co-ordinates UK registrations, show these alternatives have flopped. Last month, .ltd.uk represented only 0.31 per cent of the 150,180 new UK listings, whereas .plc.uk made up just 0.07 per cent of the total - a mere 21 new addresses. This compares with 139,641 newly registered .co.uk addresses, which made up 93 per cent of the total.
Nominet pointed out that there are tight rules for registering these domains, with the name having to match that registered with Companies House, the UK commercial registrar. But even so, the evidence would suggest that the alternative names are very much also-rans.
On a global basis, organisations have already improvised on new top-level domain names by using country codes. Some, for example, are using Italy's .it domain name to create addresses like www.spend.it, although that particular URL is, unsurprisingly, already reserved.
Tuvalu, a collection of Pacific islands with a population of about 10,000, offers the option of a .tv domain name and started pushing the address to television stations with the help of a California-based reseller earlier this year.
It already claims to have signed up Granada's Sky Broadcasting division and the BBC, but otherwise .tv's customer list is unimpressive: none of the big US networks have taken the bait, although some of their local affiliates, which rebroadcast network content during peak viewing times, have signed up.
As a sideline, the BBC is developing a reputation as an assiduous hunter of domain names after buying bbc.com for an undisclosed sum and chasing the Greater Victoria Personal Computer Users' Association - otherwise known as Big Blue and Cousins - for bbc.org.
But despite the apparent industry apathy, Icann has resolved to go ahead with introducing new domain names, although this may expose firms to new dangers from so-called cyber squatters. This is particularly likely should a .sex domain name be introduced, and may prompt well-known brands and individuals to reserve their names before a pornographic site does.
Petspyjamas' Fallon has already won a court battle in Germany against such a domain name user that infringed its trademark. "The law is on our side, but it adds to the work," he said.
Dai Davis, a consultant for law firm Nabarro Nathanson, agreed that companies will be able to use the trademark courts, or Icann's dispute resolution service, to win their brand names from cyber squatters, but he acknowledged that there is a danger for organisations that share their name with others. Lotus, for example, is used legitimately by a software firm, a car maker, a shoe company and a manufacturer of toilet paper.
"It's not that unusual," he said. "If Lotus.shop was first registered by the Lotus car company, there is nothing the US software company could do about it."
Prevention is better than cure
Davis also predicted problems for organisations with generic names such as lastminute.com or handbag.com, saying that the battle for the lastminute.travel moniker would be tough. "On the basis of prevention being better than cure, a company should register additional names at the earliest opportunity," he said.
But such an event also depends on how Icann chooses to hand out its new addresses, although it has resolved to do so in "a measured and responsible manner". While it could allocate them on a first come, first served basis in the same way it did with the .com name, this would be likely to open the process up to cyber squatters bagging thousands of names the second registration opens.
Although an auction could work, Davis pointed out that this might be unfair on firms with a trademarked name which is the same as another company's .com address. "You could say it's unfair for Harrods to register Harrods.firm, as it already owns Harrods.com," he explained.
So with all this controversy in mind, look out for legal fireworks around the end of this year when the new domain names should go live.
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