Two years ago, the first new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) were introduced into the internet root zone. It marked a transition to expand from the dot-com suffix to dot-everything-else. Since the new program launched, we've seen gTLDs like .london and .guru added to the list, not to mention more controversial strings such as .sucks.
But it's not just about hoarding .sexy URLs. ICANN, the non-profit that oversees domain names, looks forward to the new gTLDs leading to further innovation. "We expect to see the innovation coming from different business models—other ways of looking at the TLD other than just selling domain names," said Akram Atallah, president of ICANN's Global Domains Division, at an ICANN roundtable event on the evolution of top-level domains in London on Tuesday.
This, he acknowledged, has not yet really revealed itself: "It seems like everyone's sitting round the pool waiting for the first guy to jump in before everyone follows."
What can you do with a domain name beyond selling to the highest bidder? In an interview, Atallah gave the example of ideas proposed by car manufacturers such as providing email addresses and web pages with their product—"So that you can have a domain name for your car and when you sell your car that domain name goes with the car, with the history of the car and all that," he suggested.
Present at the event on Tuesday were representatives from several global companies that have become new gTLD operators; that is, they control the gTLD associated with their brand name. With the exception of Atallah's remarks, the meeting was held under Chatham House Rule, meaning reporters were able to use information shared but not to reveal the affiliation of speakers, so as to allow the brands (or "dot-brands" as they frequently referred to themselves) to speak freely about their teething problems with moving hundreds of global sites over to their .brandname.
The rise of dot-brands was predicted from the start of the new gTLD program but end users probably haven't seen many yet. Some attendees said they had already started rolling out their new infrastructures internally. There are a few reasons big business in particular could be interested in acquiring gTLDs: brand awareness is an obvious one, as if you control a gTLD, you determine who can use it (i.e. just you) rather than sharing .com or .biz or .pizza with all and sundry. "By having our own space, it's our own little kingdom," said one attendee.
It also means less of a struggle to acquire already-taken .com sites when launching a new product, and, at the most basic, it stops someone else grabbing that bit of internet real estate.
With increased concern about keeping the web open and equal, it might feel somewhat unsettling to see big companies essentially buy up their territory on the web and mark it with their branded gTLD flag. But Atallah insists that smaller companies—or individuals—aren't at a disadvantage, even if they can't afford their own domain on the top level (it costs $185,000 to apply for a new gTLD, and then you have to maintain it).
"In reality, having a domain name at the second level [as in "vice" in vice.com] and having a top-level domain is not that much different if you can associate with it," he said, emphasising the need for brands to market their digital presence to their customer base regardless where their dot falls. "If you establish that at the second level or you establish that at the top level, that's two sides of the same coin," he added.
For their part, the new gTLD users emphasised the benefits of having control over the security features of the top-level domain, and the added trust for consumers who would know from the brand suffix that they're on a legitimate site and not a spoof.
Will we even notice domains when we interact with online services in the next five or ten years?
As the dot-brands start rolling out, some challenges remain. Several complained of trouble communicating with ICANN, a rather labyrinthine organisation that's also in the process of a major transition away from a US government contract to a new multi-stakeholder model that hasn't been without its own contentions.
Another question around using branded gTLDs is what naming structure to put in place before the dot, especially for international companies that want to provide similar sites in different languages. There are currently struggles over allowing people to use the two-letter country codes—like .fr for France—as the second-level domain, for example in cc.brandname. Many are also eagerly observing how new gTLDs will affect a site's performance in search results.
More fundamentally, there's the question of whether domain names will be all that useful anyway in the near future. With the rise of apps and other technologies such as the Internet of Things, which offer user interfaces without the URL bar, will we even notice domains when we interact with online services in the next five or ten years?
Unsurprisingly, Atallah thinks domains are here to stay, if only because having a unique online identifier that you can spell and pronounce is easier to share and promote than, say, an image or a QR code. "Today you have maps on your phone; you still have your address though," he said. "You don't use longitude and latitude coordinates to find where you want to go."
Whatever the top-level component, he sees them as a standard part of people's internet presence as other innovations thrive. "I think there'll be a mix of ways to access content on the internet, but having a domain name will always remain there," he said. "And it's such a cheap thing to have, it doesn't cost that much money, that it'll always be there."