If you're a customer, it's confusing and annoying. If you're IBM, it's annoying and expensive; at best, IBM will have to register the new domains (at great cost and inconvenience) to protect itself; at worst, it faces the prospect of losing thousands of customers to cybersquatters who may beat IBM to the punch and buy-up the dot-biz and dot-info versions before IBM does.
Recently, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers-the regulatory body that oversees the addressing system of the Internet-approved seven new domain names: .aero, .coop, .museum, .name, .pro, .info and .biz. While ICANN views these additions as a fresh start for companies that slipped or slept while the good "dot-com" domain names were handed out, others see it as a fresh opportunity for cybersquatters to confound consumers and bamboozle brands.
If the new domain names are a threat to brands such as IBM-that have their own dot-com address-they're a true menace to brands that don't. Consider pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which makes Prilosec, the world's biggest-selling prescription drug with $5.9 billion in world-wide sales in 1999. In mid-2001, when Prilosec loses patent protection, generic drug marketers will descend like vultures to steal its customers and sales. The company's hope is to hold onto its customers by introducing Nexium, a Prilosec-like replacement drug.
Unfortunately, AstraZeneca owns neither www.prilosec.com nor www.nexium.com (its site for Prilosec is at www.purplepill.com). If it also fails to snatch the .info and .biz versions, its plans to transition the business from the old drug to the new one will be difficult. Compounding its Internet identity problem is the fact that prescription drugs are commonly misspelled on the Internet by information-thirsty consumers. Prilosec, for example, is misspelled more than 12 different ways, including such gems as "Prylosec" and "Prilosic." Nexium will be a comparable spelling challenge.
The combination of these circumstances couldn't be more ideal for cybersquatters and "typo-squatters," who, despite some recent rulings against them, are still partying like it's 1999. For example, visitors to www.whitehouse.com expect to find President Clinton, but they get cleavage instead: A porn site owns and occupies that particular address, while our government is stuck with www.whitehouse.gov.
The White House is but one example of the thousands of brands held hostage by extortionists and satirists. Madonna, Sting and other celebrities have been forced to go to court to wrest back their online identities from cybersquatters. Political candidates are similarly challenged. President-elect George W. Bush reserved more than 60 domain names prior to announcing his entry into the 2000 race, including "georgebush.com", "georgebushsucks.com" and "bushsucks.com." But even that wasn't enough to fend off the satirist who obtained the outwardly respectable address of www.gwbush.com. The site ridicules Mr. Bush in every way imaginable. One might dismiss it as a harmless prank until learning the site received between 300,000 and 500,000 hits a month, according to a May report in The New York Times. The decision to add domains is like offering alcohol to someone with a professed inability to handle it responsibly. The fragile psyche in this equation is the domain-name system-which, on many counts, already does a poor job of making it easy for people to find things on the Web. How do you rationalize, for example, an ad this past summer for Bell Atlantic in which prospective customers are asked to check-out its "superfast" DSL at www.bellatlantic.com/smallbiz/offers/idsl/print.htm ... and please use activation code "GBNEWS." An ironic request from a company selling speed.
If the addressing system of the Internet is inconvenient to customers, it's downright damaging to brands. Companies evaluate and discard hundreds of fonts and colors to identify and develop the perfect brand name and logo. They spend fortunes to prominently display their name in ads that cost them millions. Then, they sign off as "aetnaushc"-or, to be precise, as www.aetnaushc.com (Aetna).
Companies that would never dream of messing with their brand colors somehow have no problem with the gruesome transformation that occurs when Mercedes becomes "mbusa." Even if you know that "mb" is Mercedes Benz and that "usa" means America, www.mbusa.com is not a pretty thing to look at. If desecrating the Mona Lisa with a mustache rates as a felony, bastardizing the identity of world-famous brands with slashes and colons rates a crime as well.
ICANN is trying to be helpful, we suppose, but at the end of the day, the company who invites you to "fly the friendly skies" is not www.unitedairlines.aero-it's United Airlines.
Mr. Barrett is New York-based VP-market development, RealNames Corp., Redwood City, Calif., developer of Internet Keywords, a system in which a product name and Web address are one and the same.