You might think that the last thing the internet needs is another top-level domain. Website owners can already choose between more than 200 possible endings for their internet addresses, ranging from the familiar .com to the exotic .xn-zckzah. But starting today, anyone in the world will be able to buy a domain ending in .tel – and the company selling them is convinced they will help to make the internet easier to navigate, not less.
Telnic, the UK firm that invented the .tel domain, says it will offer a kind of "phone book for the internet". The owners of .tel domains will not be able to upload and maintain web pages, as they can for other top-level domains (TLDs) – they will only be able to store contact details such as names, telephone numbers, web and email addresses. A demonstration profile at emma.tel offers a taste of what .tel offers. Visitors are presented with details including Emma's full name, street address, email address, Skype details and location. All those details can be updated instantly at any time.
Subdomains of a single .tel domain can be used to maintain separate profiles: for example, the demonstration site for Henri Asseily maintains separate profiles for his gaming and social activities. And users can make some of their information private, granting access only to people that they have given "friend" status.
Survival of the fittestTrademark owners have been able to register their protected names as .tel addresses for $399 since December 2008. But from tomorrow, anyone will be free to register any .tel address at a premium price of around $375 for three years. From 23 March the price will drop to around $20 for a year's registration.
Will .tel catch on? Many other top-level domains have struggled to establish themselves with web users. But Thomas Herbert, UK product manager for multinational domain hosting firm Hostway, which intends to sell .tel domains, notes that "this is the first TLD to be so specific in terms of what it does" – which might help it to stand out from the crowd.
The new TLD is also set apart by the way information hosted on .tel sites will be provided directly by DNS servers, which usually translate a typed web address into the IP address of the server where a web page carrying the desired information can be found. "That makes the pages very fast to load," says Herbert, "and provides a whole new way to provide information that might have other applications in future."
Telnic has provided an application programming interface (API) to help software developers create programs that can search and extract information from .tel domains, he adds. "I have already seen iPhone applications out there that update or search .tel domains – if many tools like [that] appear it may help .tel get established."
But the success of the scheme will depend on whether large numbers of people decide to entrust their contact details to .tel domains, says Herbert. "Not everyone is going to be able to register the .tel for their exact name, which is surely going to deter some."
Unsavory usesBen Edelman, a researcher at Harvard Business School in the US, studies the way public and private forces shape the internet. He's more pessimistic about the chances of .tel taking off. "To date, spammers and scammers have been the quickest to adopt new TLDs," he told New Scientist, "but this bodes poorly for the future of domain name growth." Telnic has not announced any plans to check that the details presented on a page really are those of the person they claim to represent.
If many .tel domains spring up with misleading information, perhaps with the intention of soliciting email addresses or other personal data, then both individuals and businesses with more honorable intentions will be deterred from signing up. That problem's afflicted other new domains, says Edelman. "From everything known about .tel so far, I think there remains a serious risk of a similar outcome there."