Monday, February 02, 2009

Virtual phone book

Virtual phone book

First came .com. Next were .net, .org, .biz and .mobi. The number of top level domain names (tld), the letters that follow the final dot of any domain name, is likely to grow at a fast pace this year.

If buzz generated by .tel is any indicator, cyberspace seems to have appetite for more. The suffix .tel stands out because of the way it uses the internet's Domain Name System (DNS)—the internet location where IP addresses are stored. Instead of using DNS as a hook to hang a website, it utilises DNS to store contact information in the heart of the internet. This means it can act as a repository of a company's or individual's contact details, without the need for a website. "We are removing websites from the equation by allowing businesses and individuals to store all of their contact information on DNS—the backbone of the internet. This has advantages in terms of speed and offers live data," explains Fabien Chalandon, vice-chairman, Telnic.

Telnic, the UK-based company that is promoting .tel, has just got an approval from ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a private nonprofit group that oversees technical aspects of the internet's address system. Individuals can use .tel domain name to store contact information—telephone numbers, links to websites, email addresses, instant messaging names and even identities for virtual games, like Xbox Live or Second Life, directly into the DNS. Businesses can use their .tel urls to set up contact service hubs constructed to store all the different contact details of those who buy their service, and manage the connections to which ever devices are live and connected at the time.

Telnic, which is hoping to create a second revolution after .com, is expecting to be a bigger success on mobile devices. Similar efforts were made with Enum earlier, where the user could type in the telephone number of an organisation to access its site. The browser queries the domain name server, which in turn returns the various internet service addresses that are linked to this telephone number. But Enum was limited to a conventional Web-based access. Since .tel is optimised for smartphones, it could have a greater impact on emerging markets like India, where people are bypassing PCs for mobile devices. In fact, at least one of the three Indian registrars Net4India is planning to offer the contacts details even on non-internet phones by offering the requested contact details through an SMS. This service is expected to be ready in a couple of months, according to Chalandon.

Storing the data directly in DNS could add immense value. Since it is DNS-based, a .tel lookup is much quicker than loading a typical webpage. Also, whenever you update your data in DNS, the change goes live immediately. As a result, rather than sending a note out to all of your contacts, like some contact management services, the update is seamless. Traditionally, search engines are forced to read entire webpages and guess the keywords. The .tel uses the data you supply to the DNS to tell search engines exactly where the keywords are, thereby improving your control over your search results. The traffic generated by a .tel lookup is so small that it remains inexpensive for consumers. The data is also presented in such a simple way that the .tel easily integrates into address books and allows for advances navigation on all mobile devices.

Clearly, this was a revolutionary idea when Telnic proposed it in 2000. But ICANN took almost six years to approve. And these six years have multiplied the challenges manifold. Social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace and professional networking sites like LinkedIn offer to host your contact details free of cost today. For a .tel domain name, users would need to pay between $15 to $20 depending on the registrar they chose next month. Chalandon is betting on "aggregating all your internet profiles at one place without any intrusion of ads". His confidence seems to stem from the corporate bigwigs, rushing to register .tel domain for their businesses. And the action will only intensify as landrush period begins towards the end of next month. Since domain names will then be given on first come first serve basis without any verification, domain sellers will also rush in to make a buck by selling them to brand name owners at a premium later.

He will surely make money from those who want to protect their brand names from cybersquatting. The real test, however, lies in taking it beyond this and creating a Google of contact information. To take on online directories, yellow pages and networking sites, Telnic will need to be innovative and move fast. To begin with, Chalandon is now talking to telcos to see how it could be integrated into their services. It needs to build a critical mass and a few third party applications integrated very well into it to create value that a Facebook can't before the world dials into the 'online business card'.

Aravind T

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