It's a good moment to consider the role played by companies such as Afilias that support the hidden details of your Web travels.
Last month's big Internet news was that by 2013, the exclusive club of top-level domains such as dot-com and dot-org would be open to just about any new member that can afford the dues. Dot-music, dot-sports, dot-anything-you-can-imagine: If there's a potential market for domains to populate a new realm, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers says bring it on.
Afilias Ltd., a privately held Irish company with about 200 employees, about a quarter of them here in its U.S. offices, is one of the potential beneficiaries of the change.
Afilias already runs one of the world's largest "generic top-level domains," dot-info, and operates others such as dot-org under contract. It has shown interest in branching out by registering others with niche appeal, such as dot-mobi for sites geared to mobile devices.
Afilias' experience with dot-info illustrates both the potential and the limitations facing other new generic top-level domains. Dot-info may be the fourth largest in the category, behind dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org. But so far, it's hardly been a contest.
Dot-com is currently home to about 92.8 million domains - websites that all end with the four characters that have come to represent not just a business segment but an entire economic era. In the last week alone, about 200,000 more dot-com addresses have been registered, according to Pegasus Consultants.
Not that the also-rans are insignificant. Second place dot-net has 13.6 million registered domains, followed by dot-org (9.1 million), dot-info (7.6 million), dot-biz (2.1 million), and dot-US (1.7 million).
Why do Internet names matter when Internet users rely so heavily on search engines to find the sites they want?
"It just goes back to 'What's in a name?' " says Roland LaPlante, Afilias' chief marketing officer. "If it was only about search, people wouldn't care what their names are. But they do care, and that's why they've registered 210 million names worldwide."
That figure will surely grow with ICANN's decision to open up top-level domains to all comers - or at least those who can afford its $185,000 application fee and annual charges of $25,000.
Large consumer-oriented businesses are expected to want their own domains, such as dot-Honda or dot-Microsoft. And companies such as Afilias may take aim at adding more generic top-level domains - especially those with niche-market potential.
Even under ICANN's old strictures, Afilias managed to do just that. A decade ago, its dot-info became the first new generic top-level domain to launch, joining an original list that included dot-gov, dot-mil, and dot-edu. And it turned toward the niche market in 2006, when it won the right to run dot-mobi.
LaPlante says dot-mobi, which already has about one million domains, may be increasingly valuable in an era where smartphones have become many people's favorite Web browser. But he expects it to be even more important in developing economies that never had reliable landline phone networks and "that will largely bypass the desktop, laptop and landline Internet."
New trademark-based and generic top-level domains aren't the only big change coming to the Web's architecture, LaPlante says. In fact, one of the biggest changes may be largely invisible to the English-speakers of the world, even if it was Britain's Berners-Lee who invented the Web and the Americans of Silicon Valley who powered its initial growth.
That change will allow Web addresses to be entirely in other alphabets, no longer reliant on the so-called ASCII standard that has required some English characters even in non-English addresses.
"There are many thousands of Hindi websites out there, but they all have English addresses," LaPlante says. Even Web addresses using the Cyrillic alphabet currently must include a segment of ASCII characters.
ICANN's new rules mean that will soon be changing.
"You'll see Internet addresses now that are completely Arabic, front to back," LaPlante says. "You'll see Internet addresses that are completely Hindi, or Chinese, or Japanese. That will open up the Internet, we believe, to the vast majority of people on the earth who don't speak English."
And the World Wide Web will truly live up to its name.
Contact columnist Jeff Gelles
at 215-854-2776 or firstname.lastname@example.org.