By Nick Patience
The effort and energy that has been expended in the internet community over opening up the domain name system (DNS) marketplace to competition has hopefully taught a few people a few lessons, mainly that it is not wise to grant a private company a monopoly in any market and then expect the marketplace to develop competitively. It goes without saying, maybe, but that’s what happened in the DNS, where Network Solutions Inc (NSI) has had the monopoly in registering domain names in .com .net and org through a US government cooperative agreement since 1993 and it is not likely to be broken up until later this year, and even then only partially. So those pursuing life after the DNS are determined that no one company shall have exclusive rights to the key technologies that will likely run the system. At present, URLs are the norm, and although everything is ‘dot com’ these days, it is not really the easiest method of remembering a destination on the web in the long run. The move is towards a system where company names, brand names, and even people’s own names can be entered into a browser’s locator bar and users can be taken to a specific web site that matches that name. Alternative systems have been developed by Netscape Communications Corp, Microsoft Corp, Network Solutions Inc, Centraal Inc and Networds LLC, among others. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) started working on what is generally known as human-friendly names (HFN) about 10 years ago before the web had even been invented. Interest waned as everyone came to see URLs as the zenith of internet addressing. Now with .com addresses running thin and people realizing ‘www.something.com’ is not the most intuitive form of addressing around, the work is about to get going again at the IETF. A working group is being established called the Common-Name Resolution Protocol (CNRP) group and it aims to have an initial draft ready by June this year and a proposed standard hammered out by March 2000. Submissions have already been made to the IETF by Network Solutions and Centraal and this week Networds joined the fray. A meeting will be held at the next IETF gathering next month in Minneapolis when the groups is expected to formalize its charter and get to work. Centraal, purveyor of the RealNames system, has secured the assistance of Larry Masinter of Xerox Parc to help it in its efforts. Masinter was chair of the Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI) working group, which concluded its work in 1995. The chairperson of the new group has not been decided yet, but it will not be Masinter because of his ties to Centraal. Netword’s chief operating officer and co-author of its draft, Shep Bostin, reckons Netword’s and NSI’s drafts are both positive contributions to the IETF process, but Centraal’s is not consistent with the IETF’s goals, as it merely describes how RealNames works and does not offer any real insight into how this might be mapped onto a generally accepted and open system. But Centraal has just released a follow-up draft, this time in collaboration with NSI that undercuts that argument somewhat. Centraal’s Nicolas Popp, who co-authored the draft with NSI’s Michael Mealling, says Centraal’s first draft was merely an attempt to trigger technical efforts, an ambition which it appears to have fulfilled. Popp says it was not an attempt to try and make RealNames the standard. It should be noted at this point that NSI was one of 13 investors that bought stakes in privately- held Centraal in December. It owns 10% now and had warrants for almost another 10% (12/10/98). Centraal’s founder and CEO Keith Teare says the Networds submission is an attempt to justify Netword’s particular world view of how human-friendly names should be implemented. Networds works on a first-come-first served basis and offers no quality control, he says. And while that may be appropriate for registering people’s own names, it will not work with brand names or trademarks, he says. The new Centraal-NSI draft now refers to common names rather than RealNames and proposes an abstract protocol for the resolution of common names. Teare says Centraal is more than happy to work with Networds and whoever else wants to participate in the IETF work. The new draft is at http://www.ietf.org/internet-drafts/draft-popp-cnrp-00.txt and the Networds’ contribution is at http://search.ietf.org/internet- drafts/draft-moseley-ohfn-00.txt.