But now, in a move that could dramatically speed the Internet's growth in China, several companies in Hong Kong and Taiwan have started registering Internet domain names--the names you type to access Web pages--that are written in Chinese characters. In December, two firms launched the service in Taiwan; in January, two more did so in Hong Kong. Early February brought new languages--Thai and six Indian languages, including Tamil and Hindi--and new markets: Thailand, India, Australia and, soon, Singapore. It's a simple development, but it could make the Internet easier for hundreds of millions.
The company behind this swirl of activity is a Silicon Valley-based outfit called i-DNS.net. It offers software that can convert any of 30-40 languages into distinct code that directs a user to a spot on the Internet. i-DNS supplies its software to Web-page design firms or Internet service providers like Hong Kong's HKNet. They in turn register the Web pages that let people and companies stake out Thai or Tamil or Chinese spots on the Net. i-DNS takes a cut of the registration fees. By mid-year, i-DNS also expects to start offering e-mail services.
What i-DNS wants to become is no less than the international registry for non-Romanized Web sites, earning a fee for every registration. It has been lobbying authorities in several countries in Asia and the West to make its software the essential means of mapping non-Roman Web-site names. "The object at the end of the day," says Manik Arora, the company's director of strategy and planning, "is that we would like to be a standard."
i-DNS says its partners have registered some 50,000 domain names in the few weeks they have been offering them, and there are over 100,000 more waiting to be processed. For now, a Chinese site is more expensive than an English one: The two providers in Hong Kong, HKNet and 3gDNS, charge HK$960 ($123) for a two-year registration, compared with the $50 a site goes for in the United States.
Set up in November 1999, i-DNS was spun out of an academic project at the National University of Singapore to map various languages into a digital format--1s and 0s--and then map it to the Internet, all the while ensuring that none of the languages overlapped. The project had been supported by the university, but the company itself got a big boost in November with $4 million in funding from General Atlantic Partners, an American venture-capital firm.
The billion-dollar question is whether the company can manage to make itself into a global registry. Network Solutions is a $10 billion American company that registers all U.S.-based .com, .net and .org names. But its growth came in a wild-and-woolly, largely unregulated environment. (In the early 1980s, the entire roster of academic Web sites was stored with one engineer in California.)
i-DNS, by contrast, won't be moving into a vacuum. In each country it's trying to enter, there's a regulatory body that governs Web sites and site registration, each with its own approach. Convincing regulators that its service should be a standard will be tricky, given that there are other firms working on programs that enable Web sites in individual languages. "The technology was easy," says i-DNS Director S. Suppiah. "The hardest part is getting buy-in."
Suppiah argues that without a global standard, the Net's spread across borders will be slower. He worked hard at convincing Indian authorities it made sense for the company to become a registry there, too. And he says there will be more such campaigns. "We're prepared to wait a year or more for them," he says. "You can't build a global standard overnight."