Saturday, June 13, 2009

Semi-private, semi-open name spaces

I had dinner with a friend Thursday night, who remarked back in 1993 some of his friends working on the Internet suggested that he should reserve a domain name. Sex.com, movies.com, McDonalds.com — all would have been potentially valuable.

Since that time, the first-come-first-served name space of the Internet has meant an Oklahoma-style land rush, without the (minimal) process fairness and limits of the Sooner era. Now cybersquatters have all the good unused .coms, forcing really odd company name choices, and every so often causing an Internet snake-oil salesman to claim a new top level domain (.info, .mobi, etc.) will be the sure path to riches for those who pay top dollar in the latest land rush.

However, there’s entirely distinct name space — or actually dozens of them — which are nearly as valuable as the .coms. The first such name space was the email address — originally AOL and then MSN, Yahoo and gmail. The real cognoscenti can be identified by a common first name, as my friend has with his pacbell.net account (back when there was a Pac Bell, before it became part of SBC-that-pretends-to-be-AT&T).

Movies have long since given up on getting the relevant domain name, so the Pixar hit Up is pixar.com/featurefilms/up (or disney.go.com/disneypictures/up while the Eddie Murphy vehicle Imagine That is www.imaginethatmovie.com. The regular domain names for these two movies are respectively a railroad and an advertising company.

The problem is a flat name space across all geographies and industries. In trademark law, it’s quite OK to have a Delta airlines and a Delta faucet and Delta insurance company. There could also be a Chin’s or Mario’s restaurant in every town in the country, but only one gets the simple .com URL.

Private name spaces seem like they are both more open and less open than others. More open in that new name spaces can be created, allowing new entry; if I didn’t get a good gmail address, maybe I can get a good ymail address. Less open in that there are no process fairness rules for assigning names, which means that anything goes. (Presumably relatively reputable companies will be relatively fair, but as in the rest of life there are no guarantees.)

The namespace that has interested me recently has been Web 2.0. As with the email case, a private entity (rather than the nominally fair ICANN and its registrars) has sole right to say who gets the name space. On the one hand, their procedures discourage squatting (I won’t say prevent since I have 6 gmail accounts, not counting the one I got for each family member). So this summer’s X-Men prequel has the MySpace-assigned URL myspace.com/X-MenOrigins.

On the other hand, the private namespace owner could choose any allocation system it wants — most notably, auction to the highest bidder. Of course, if it’s MySpace’s namespace, it can do what it wants. It would be more expensive to get JackSmith, while FIFO is more like a lottery ticket. Alternately, as with today’s cybersquatter domain system, FIFO owners of lottery tickets could resell their choice names (as has happened with MySpace names).

Saturday at 12:01am (EDT) marked the beginning of the Facebook namespace land rush. Of some 200 million members, only 0.1% reserved names in the first few minutes. (Some elite insiders and friends were able to pre-reserve their names). I got my preferred name for Facebook (as with LinkedIn but not aol, gmail or yahoo).

I don’t know that the new names are going to change how people use Facebook. LinkedIn has had this for years but I still find business associates mainly by searching. I could see posting LinkedIn on a business card — or MySpace on a movie ad — but Facebook seems like more something that you either find by searching or email to a friend. I guess — as with email addresses — unique custom names signal innovators (or early adopters) as distinct from members of the late majority.

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