Type in "United Airlines" on Netscape Communicator 4.5, and you fly straight to www.ual.com. You needn't know a URL from a DNS; the software automatically does the translating.
Netscape Communications Corp., Microsoft Corp., start-up Centraal Corp. and others could take Web branding back to the future, allowing traditional brand and product names to work on the Web without tacking on a ".com."
Netscape introduced the Smart Browsing feature last October in Communicator 4.5, and Microsoft will follow this quarter with an enhanced AutoSearch feature in the new Internet Explorer 5.0.
Centraal (www.centraal.com), aligned with domain-name registration powerhouse Network Solutions, is promoting a technology and service, RealNames, allowing marketers to register brand names that then are associated with a URL.
With Centraal's technology, a user who types in "Barnes & Noble" in the address box immediately goes to barnesandnoble.com. (That assumes the user has downloaded RealNames' decoder software; Centraal is hoping Microsoft and Netscape will include it in future browsers. Meanwhile, Centraal has struck deals with search engines, including AltaVista, that support RealNames in their searches.)
"Allowing a customer to find us any way makes sense," said a spokesman for barnesandnoble.-com. The bookseller, the spokesman stresses, isn't dropping its .com tag but wants to make the online store accessible to all.
However, the potential is there for marketers to drop .com from print and TV ads and make the Web identity the same as the product or company name.
DRIVING TO FORD
Type in "Ford Ranger" on Navigator 4.5, for example, and Netscape brings up www.fordvehicles.com/ranger, but consumers needn't worry about the URL.
Systems to translate URLs aren't a new idea; domain names themselves, in fact, are shorthand for a numerical string identifying a site. "United Airlines," in turn, is shorthand for a domain name.
Internet standards bodies including the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org) and Internet Engineering Task Force have been studying schemes to bring natural language to the Internet; Centraal is pushing one proposal with the task force for Human Friendly Identifiers. Search engines increasingly can interpret natural language; AltaVista and search technology supplier Inktomi, for example, use Centraal's system.
But efforts by Netscape and Microsoft to manage regular words in the browser's address box move the concept ahead dramatically.
"It becomes extremely interesting as soon as both browser companies support it," said Ken Hickman, a Netscape Netcenter program manager.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Theoretically, a new PC user signing onto the Web for the first time in 1999 may never type in http:, www. or .com.
"We're trying to sort of bridge the gap" to make Web browsing simpler, said Mike Nichols, an Internet Explorer product manager. Mr. Nichols noted using natural language makes sense, especially for new Web users who wouldn't even think to use the http: convention in the URL address box.
Plugging words into an address box has its challenges when words are associated with a broad category or multiple brands. Type in "television" on Netscape Communicator 4.5, and the browser offers a directory of options -- including but not limited to domain names, such as television.com, that have the name.
Microsoft took a different approach in IE 5.0: The browser takes the user to a likely match, but a directory on the left part of the screen lists other potential sites. "Nike" links to nike.com, but lists other URLs associated with Nike, such as nike.com/girls and jumpman23.com, Nike's Michael Jordan site.
Registration services exercise care when linking brand names with URLs; Centraal CEO Keith Teare notes Centraal would be willing to register "United Airlines," but not "United," because there are multiple brands whose names begin with "United."
The era of typing in .com is far from over. Out of habit, Web veterans for years to come may type in http:, www. and .com. And old browsers will remain in use for a long time, giving incentive for marketers to maintain some .com identity; nearly 40% of Netscape users still use a browser released before mid-1997.
In addition, Mr. Teare noted select Web brands, such as Amazon.com, are so strong that they could thrive even when the truncated Amazon is all that's needed.
Given that the technology is now available to use natural language for Web addresses, the next issue becomes how brand owners can register their brands. A number of schemes are being floated; Mr. Teare said Centraal, a key player in the burgeoning area, since last May has signed between 14,000 and 15,000 companies that pay $100 a year for name registration.
Mr. Teare said he's in talks with both Microsoft and Netscape about providing central registration. Network Solutions, the big domain-name registration service, last month invested in Centraal, helping in the start-up's quest to set the standard.
Netscape's Mr. Hickman said he hopes to see Microsoft and Netscape agree on a third party that could register brand names.
"Ideally, you would want a central registration service that would be used" by the two browser giants and others, Mr. Hickman said.
Microsoft's Mr. Nichols is aware of the need to devise browsing capabilities that help marketers and consumers. "My mom was messing around with the browser," he recalled. "She asked me why the heck do we have this http: thing.