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Get ready for multi-lingual Internet domains

Online, CNET.com, 6 November 1999 -- SINGAPORE - A spin-off from the National University of Singapore is ready to bring the non-English speaking world onto the Internet.

Called i-DNS.net International, the company has developed a way for Web sites to have domain names without using the Roman alphabet.

If i-DNS.net has its way, it means that sites such as Yahoo in Japan can have the domain name rendered in Japanese characters, making it easier for non-English speaking Japanese Internet users to remember. Yahoo's Japanese site is now rendered in English as yahoo.co.jp.

Domain names are the general addresses of sites on the Internet. For example, the domain name for CNET is cnet.com. Domain names are now rendered only in Roman characters, even for countries that do use these characters in their written language. So Web sites in China, Egypt, and Russia have to render the names of their sites using Roman characters, instead of Chinese ideograms, or the Arabic or Cyrillic alphabet.

With i-DNS.net's system in place, languages-specific sites can market the address of their site in the native written language, using the appropriate alphabet or ideogram. All people have to do is type in the domain name in that language. They would not have to change any settings or install any software.

"Just imagine if the Internet had been invented in Korea. We would all now be struggling to remember domain names rendered in Korean characters," said Dr Tan Tin Wee, the NUS academic who originally proposed this project.

"How is the Internet and e-commerce going to take off if people who do not understand English have to struggle to remember English words to go to a particular site?", he asked rhetorically.

Based on that vision, Tan started a project last year to see if domain names could be more representative of the languages of the world.

That effort culminated in i-DNS.net International, which now has a staff of 10, and which has just received US$4 million in first-round funding from investment firm General Atlantic Partners.

According to i-DNS.net, there are currently 96 million non-native English-speaking users on the Internet, compared to 119 million native English-speaking users.

The company sees both the existing non-native speakers, as well as those not yet on the Internet, as representing the potential of the company.

Interim chief executive John Wong said the company planned to collect US$35 a year to register a domain, which is what the current registrar for the top level domain, Network Solutions, charges. He conservatively estimated that the company could register a million domain names in 18 months, which would give the company revenue of US$35 million.

Currently, i-DNS.net allows domain names to be rendered in 32 languages, from Arabic to Yiddish. By the end of the week, they intend to add three more Indian languages: Tamil, Telugu and Hindi.

The company is also working to get the protocol they are using approved as a standard by the Internet Engineering Task Force, the body that approves Internet standards.

Chief technology officer James Seng said one question he is always asked is if the system would lead to a Balkanization of the Internet. Currently, anyone can go to www.yahoo.co.jp, even if they do not have a system to render Japanese characters. If the system is implemented, a site could register itself solely in the native written language, and exclude the rest of the world, who cannot even find the site because their systems cannot render characters necessary for the domain name of the site.

Seng's response is that the Internet is already being carved into different linguistic parts already. He added: "We are not asking sites to give up their English domain. We are giving them the choice to have the domain name in their local language as well.

"We are trying to bring people who are not able to read English onto the Internet and who, without i-DNS, would not be able to get onto the Internet in the first place."

Added Tan: "Familiarity with English should not be the hidden prerequisite for anyone who wishes to use the Internet. Denying these people the right to access the Internet in their own language is absolutely unacceptable."

For the system to take off, the company has to convince Internet service providers around the world to implement the free software they have developed to enable a multi-lingual domain name.

The company has to negotiate with the top-tier ISPs in major countries to install the software. They plan to start with Singapore and then move on to Korea, Hong Kong and China.

So far, no ISPs have agreed to implement to system yet, but if people wish to see how the system works, the company has step-by-step instructions on their site on how to test out a working trial version.

-- i-DNS.net shall not be held liable for the views and opinions of the authors expressed herein.
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