Inevitable as it may sound, some prominent registrars have been slow to recognize the writing on the wall. Network Solutions, for example, started playing catch-up last month when it said it would test using non-English languages to register top-level domain names such as .com, .net and .org. It also struck an alliance with i-DNS International, a Palo Alto, Calif., company that says it has registered more than 120,000 multilingual domain names, making it a leading registrar in the field.
Despite the Net's global reach, Internet addresses are available only in Roman letters and Arabic numerals. Web sites with content in languages such as Chinese and Farsi, for example, have addresses that can be reached only when people type Roman letters (usually English) into their browsers.
That may not sound like a big deal, but it's a significant obstacle for the nearly 20 percent of Internet users who read languages based on non-Roman characters. Speakers of these languages - ranging from Russian to Korean will account for 27 percent of all Internet users within three years, according to U.S.-based market-research firm Global Reach.
Companies such as i-DNS use translation technologies that connect non-Roman languages with the existing domain-name system. But without a standard for how these technologies will talk to each other, compatibility roadblocks prevent people from hopping from one Internet address to another. Nonetheless, the prospect of creating vast amounts of new virtual real estate is enticing entrepreneurs to race ahead anyway.
Critics say the current domain-name system slows the spread of the Internet and prevents it from becoming accessible to people in developing countries.
"So many who do not speak English are afraid of the Internet because of their perception that the Internet is an English-language experience," says Jarallah Aljarallah, a member of the Arabic language domain-name working group. Aljarallah and other internationalists made headway at the July meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in Yokohama, Japan.
A group of engineers called the Internet Engineering Task Force is trying to create a technological standard for addresses in other languages. But the group, which doesn't want to disturb the domain-name system at the core of the Internet, is moving cautiously.
Without a clear standard, it's conceivable that one company could get such a lead that its technology becomes the world benchmark. It is also possible that several companies could make their technologies talk to each other.
In the past, however, technology companies haven't done a good job at that. "It's best to have standards," says Brian Cartmell, CEO of eNIC, one of several companies building technologies for multilingual domain names.
One way or another, Internet addresses will eventually have to accommodate other alphabets. Companies may have to spend more money protecting their trademarks in other languages, but they might also be able to reach new customers.