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February 4, 1996

Winning the great
land grab of cyberspace

By Timothy C. Barmann

What's in a name? Shakespeare once wrote.

Plenty, at least in cyberspace.

A catchy "domain name" on the Internet can be as good as gold for some companies, and the gold rush is well under way.

A domain name is an address that's used to direct Internet users to a company's on-line site. For example, Sony Corp. owns the domain "sony.com." Most Internet users are familiar with this naming convention and will expect Sony's World Wide Web address to be www.sony.com, which it is.

The problem is that many commonly used words, names and company monikers are already registered. Hundreds of people may be listed in a phone book under the surname Smith, but there can be only one domain called "smith.com" on the Internet.

Let's say you wanted to put a company on the Internet to promote tourism in Rhode Island. You might want ri.com for your domain name. But you'd be too late. It already belongs to a 25-year-old software engineer who owns Rom Industries in Chicago. He registered the domain back in 1992.

What about using providence.com for your on-line tourism company? Forget it. That's been gone since October, 1994. It's registered to an Internet access provider in Manhattan. The provider is holding the domain name for a man who wanted to start "some kind of financial company," but has yet to do so, said Bruce Fancher, president of Phantom Access Technologies in New York City.

And oceanstate.com? Gone. That was snapped up last September by Ocean State Rigging Systems, a North Providence company that suspends theatrical sound and lighting systems for big name entertainers like Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones, said Lenny Puckett, the company's vice president.

Domain name registrations have increased dramatically. In 1994 alone, commercial domain registrations jumped from about 29,000 to 170,000, according to Internet Info, a Virginia company that tracks Internet statistics. That's an increase of more than 580 percent.

Why are domain names so important?

"For us, it's the issue of marketing," said Andy Green, president of Intelecom Data Systems, an East Greenwich Internet access provider that owns the domain "ids.net."

Green said his company would also like to have the domain nettv.com because his company is working with Cox Cablevision to deliver Internet access via cable television. But nettv.com is already taken. Green said he might be willing to buy it from the owner for "up to a few thousand dollars or so." He likens the expense to the cost of an advertisement.

How to claim a name

Registering a new domain name is not very difficult; many Internet access providers will handle all the details for their customers. And until last September it was free.

That's when Network Solutions, the Virginia company that processes registration applications, announced it couldn't keep up with the demand.

The company, which is under contract from an Internet agency called InterNIC, doles out domain names on a first-come, first-served basis. As long as a domain name isn't already taken and you don't appear to have some ill intent (snapping up your competitor's domain name, for example), you can register it. (That doesn't mean you necessarily can keep it if you've registered the trademarked name of a Fortune 500 company, for example. You would certainly face legal action.)

A domain name registration will cost you $100 up front, plus an annual fee of $50 that kicks in after the second year - about the yearly cost of an American Express card. (Which, by the way, has already registered americanexpress.com).

There are more than 200,000 commercial domains of all kinds, from those that obviously mirror corporate names (like disney.com), to the utterly ridiculous (like underarm.com).

Underarm.com is actually registered by Cincinnati-based Procter and Gamble, which owns at least 110 domain names, according to Internet Info.

"We want to give our company several avenues for getting our message out to consumers," saidElizabeth Moore, a spokeswoman for Procter and Gamble.

Intestinal address

Among the others P & G has registered are headache.com, pimples.com, badbreath.com and even - diarrhea.com.

What does Proctor & Gamble want with diarrhea.com?

"We don't discuss our plans for domain names," Moore said. But she did say her company is the maker of Pepto Bismol, which is sometimes used to relieve that uncomfortable ailment.

So presumably someone with diarrhea will be able to go to their computer, log on to the Internet, type in something like www.diarrhea.com and learn everything about solving their gastrointestinal troubles.

At least Rhode Islanders have an advantage over those in other parts of the country when searching for new domain names. That's because we talk funny he-ah. Pizza.com and lobster.com may already be taken, but pizzer.com and lobstah.com are still available.

Search for your domain

It's easy to check whether a domain is registered or not. You can search domain names on the Web site of InterNIC, the agency that keeps the domain registry, at http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois

Ryan's place

The bulletin board run by Ryan Gralinski, the Coventry teenager featured in the Jan. 21 Cybertalk column, is called The Party Palace BBS. Its phone number is 822-3207.

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.