FRAMINGHAM (10/03/2003) - The biggest barrier to widespread corporate use of internationalized domain names (IDNs) is the lack of support in key applications such as Web browsers and e-mail clients. So VeriSign Inc., the central registry for domain names ending in .com and .net, is leading an attempt to lower that barrier.
VeriSign will announce as early as this week the formation of the IDN Software Consortium, which will promote the development of IDN-compliant software.
Today, Internet users have to download special plug-ins to resolve IDNs. VeriSign's goal is for software developers such as Apple Computer Inc. Lotus Corp. and Microsoft Corp. to provide built-in IDN support so that plug-ins are no longer required.
"The [IDN] standards are great, but we have to get the software developers and applications to support them," says Ben Turner, vice president of naming services at VeriSign.
VeriSign officials would not identify the companies that have joined the consortium but said the group will have its first meeting next month.
With IDNs, multinational corporations can create native-language Web sites to market products in each country where they conduct business. Karlsburg Brewing in Germany and Coca-Cola Co.'s Korean subsidiary both use native language domain names.
The IDN Software Consortium is good news for advocates of IDNs, who have labored for several years to develop a scheme for processing multilingual domain names without disrupting the Internet's DNS.
"It's excellent," says Paul Hoffman, one of the authors of the IDN standards, which awaits final approval from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). "VeriSign has already made their IDN tool kit freely available to developers. With these tools being available and pushed by the consortium, developers will say that it's not so hard for them to support the standard."
Protecting brand names
Until now, domain names and e-mail addresses were based on English language, ASCII characters. Internet users overseas are clamoring to surf the Web and send e-mail using their native languages rather than the English approximations used today.
Many U.S. companies bought IDNs to protect their brand names and trademarks in other languages. However, few of those IDNs link to actual Web sites because of the technical difficulties involved.
"Overall, the number of domain names that have been sold is about 50 million worldwide," says Jay Westerdal, president of consulting firm Name Intelligence. "About 5 million of those names were in foreign languages. Most of the IDNs that were sold are in Asian languages such as Korean, Japanese and Chinese."
Westerdal says U.S. companies aren't using IDNs because of the need for software plug-ins.
"I was in China, and every time I saw a Web site being advertised, it was in English," Westerdal says. "The fact that users need a software plug-in is a real hurdle for lots of companies."
The IDN Software Consortium wants to remove that hurdle by helping software developers comply with the IETF's specifications for resolving IDNs. The IETF has developed three protocols that convert foreign language characters into Unicode, a computer industry standard, and then encode them in ASCII for transmission over the Internet's DNS.
IDN generates little backing
Since their release in March, the IETF's IDN protocols have generated little support among developers. Released this summer, Netscape 7.1 (also known as Mozilla 1.4) is the only Web browser with built-in support for IDNs. Microsoft will not comment on plans to support IDNs in Internet Explorer, Outlook or Outlook Express, and Lotus says it is not working on IDN support for Notes.
The IETF's IDN standards are solid, according to Hoffman, who last month ran an interoperability test of eight internationalized software packages from all over the world. The software packages - including Web browsers and plug-ins, e-mail clients, zone editing programs and programming tool kits - were run though 120 tests. Hoffman expects IDN-compliant software to ship by year-end.
Until then, domain name registries and registrars are forging ahead with sales of IDNs. More than 40 registrars offer domain names in 350 local languages for .com and .net.
VeriSign offers Internet users two ways to get to these IDNs: a free software plug-in called I-Nav or a Web navigation service, both of which support the IETF's specifications.
"People have downloaded 12 million plug-ins since January," Turner says. "Companies in Korea, China and Japan are just starting to use IDNs. We're seeing several hundred thousand [IDN] resolutions a day."
Turner estimates that more than 50,000 .com and .net IDNs point to multi-page Web sites.
Meanwhile, Afilias, the registry for .info names, announced last month the availability of standards-compliant IDNs using German script characters. Afilias has sold 260,000 .info names in Germany, which has emerged as the No. 2 market for .info names.
"The world is multilingual and multicultural," says Ram Mohan, vice president of operations and Chief Technology Officer of Afilias Ltd. "Businesses and applications on the Internet must go that way or risk becoming irrelevant."