The organization that oversees Web addresses, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, announced Monday in Singapore that it will allow nearly any word in any language to be an Internet address suffix.
There are currently 23 possible endings for a Web address — including the familiar dot-com, dot-gov, dot-edu and, of course, dot-org.
ICANN's new ruling, which may shake that up, is "the most significant change to the Internet, really, since it was created," according to Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of ICANN's board of directors.
"Once this is set up," he says,"the theory is, or the hope is, this is going to lead to innovation in ways we can't imagine."
The way it works is that organizations will pay $185,000 to apply for what is called a top-level domain name, as dot-com and dot-org are used now. So, in about a year-and-a-half, you might see dot-Starbucks or dot-Nike.
Dengate-Thrush says the fee is relatively modest because "It's not the price of a domain name. This is to create a registry that ... can sell and manage millions and even hundreds of millions of domain names. You're talking a reasonably serious business investment."
But Esther Dyson, the former and founding chair of ICANN's board, does not see the value in this new naming system.
"I think it's kind of a useless market," she says, "and if I had $185,000, I'd spend it on something else."
Dyson says a new naming system is unnecessary, especially at this price.
"Nobody's creating new value here," Dyson says,"They're just selling words ... The trademark system is good enough."
Jeff Ernst, principal analyst at Forrester Research and an expert in marketing strategy, says the biggest brands are already looking to invest in new dot-names.
"Just about any big-brand company wants to have as much control over their Web presence as they can, and this gives them a way to do it without yielding to the dot-com primary," Ernst says.
What that means is that big brands see big opportunities. He gives an example of what a company like Canon could do. It could acquire dot-Canon, and even the generic dot-camera, and could create photo-sharing Web sites grouped within those domains.
"So not only is Canon now going to be dot-Canon," he says, "but Canon can now issue secondary domains to every one of its camera owners, and what they might very well do is embed a chip in their cameras that link that camera owner to their ID so that as they're taking photos they could just be automatically uploading photos to a photo-sharing site. I mean, that's just one possibility."
But Dyson says, "Canon.com works fine, as far as I'm concerned."
She says this is an expensive solution for the wrong problem.
"The real issue isn't even dot-com versus dot-camera in the long run," she says. "It's let's use Google."
Dengate-Thrush, the ICANN board's current chairman, insists what's best for consumers is choice. And, ultimately, there's no better way to see what consumers really want then by putting it up for sale.