Netscape and Generic Names
Monday, July 20, 1998 by Dave Winer.
Let's go back to the issues raised in Netscape's Undocumented Geek Feature, 7/15/98, and the articles on ZDNet, News.com and Wired that followed.
The Wired piece was especially interesting. It came out early this morning.
Wired raises the issue, we've heard it before, whether anyone should own generic names such as scripting.com. I'm open to debate it. Right now UserLand does own the name, in every realistic sense of name ownership on the Net. Why? We had the prescience to know that it would be valuable, in March 1995, when we registered it.
I think we also developed the "scripting" term in the context of the Internet, unlike some generic name holders, who are holding the names waiting for the day when the names are worth millions. They may be disappointed if Netscape wins this argument, especially if Microsoft follows suit. Netscape's claim is that what's important is owning the browser bits on users' hard disks.
We asked for and got a statement from Microsoft last week, and while they said they wouldn't implement such a feature at this time (smart move) they didn't say they would *never* implement it. Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's Director of Windows Marketing, said: "We considered and have thus far rejected ideas such as including a set of pre-defined URL mappings to keywords for the very reasons you list in your email. This is not something we believe can be done in such a way that benefits users nor is fair to the great many content providers that publish information on the Web. So contrary to Netscape's claim, we do not have this behavior in any version of Internet Explorer. Even if Netscape did not point to their own site, I still believe this functionality is problematic for users and content developers. How do you pick the one URL that gets a keyword like 'Car' or 'Developers' or in terms of trademark issues 'Ford' or 'Xerox' for example."
Mehdi makes a good point. There are lots of Fords. There's Gerald Ford, the former US president. And Harrison Ford, a famous movie actor. And the Ford Motor Company. And Ford County, Kansas. And Navigator is a Ford product, but it's also the name of a minor league baseball team and of a product from (ooops) Netscape. Which Ford gets the keyword, and how will the other Fords feel about that?
Other owners of generic names, news.com comes to mind, have also done a lot of development of their brand/domain name. I consider news.com to be authoritative in the area of computer industry news. As with scripting.com, they cover only a slice of their generic category. Surely the New York Times would have a better claim on the "news" generic domain name. And some would argue that no one can own news.com, that in some "right" view of the world, "news" should get you to a Yahoo-like page listing of all the sources of news on the net. What's right? Who's to say scripting.com won't develop into a generic site that fully lives up to its generic name? Why is Netscape better qualified to cover scripting?
Anyway, Netscape's move could cause a major redirection of dollar flow on the Net. If it works, a bunch of dollars are going to flow in Netscape's direction that used to flow another way. But there's a problem, if Netscape makes too much money, can't I download their source and ship a browser that works in *my* economic interest? Remember, Netscape is the open source browser.
I usually don't like to give advice in DaveNet pieces, but when I spoke with Netscape marketing people on Wednesday evening, they specifically asked for feedback, so here goes.
1. Open up the keyword database. Show us what it contains. Let us study the issues it raises. Have a permanent dynamic page that allows users to see all the keywords, hot-linked to the sites they connect to. Internic's keyword database is open, as is AOL's keyword system. To be competitive, Netscape's database must be open too.
2. Open up the protocol. Is it a cgi-bin? What parameters does it take? What does it return? If this catches on, other software may want to be compatible. Show us how it works. Even better, make this an application of XML-RPC. It's a perfect technological match.
3. Allow the user to choose a different keyword server. Allow competitive keyword systems to develop.
4. Split the Address text box in two. Keep the old functionality in the left hand box, and use the second box just for keywords. That way a problem becomes a feature; simply more functionality, it would be hard for anyone to object to it.
I'm not sure the individual Netscape people I've spoken with understand that when I raise issues like this, it's an act of friendship. Maybe the collective Netscape will get it.
The friendship is based on a desire to have a real two-party system in web browser software. If Netscape's share should diminish, or be fragmented into two or more pieces of software (open source might make that possible) then the pressure on Microsoft to keep moving would be diminished. Therefore it makes business sense for me, and other web developers, to want to see Netscape go forward without losing share.
They might ask why I raise the issues publicly? It's simple. A publc beta calls for a public response. If they had done it privately, before users started experiencing the dislocation, I would have been happy to provide the feedback privately.
In the discussion last week, Netscape said that it's a beta process at work. They can change things while the software is being evaluated. However, it's also a stake in the ground, a good-cop bad-cop thing (if they ease up they'll look good), a trial balloon and perhaps a shot from the hip (perhaps not). It's a fairly technical area, but it may have broad economic impact. It took the other news sources a few days to catch up, but they *are* catching up. I predict this will be one of the hottest discussions for the remainder of 1998, among all industry elements, especially people who hold stock in companies with generic domain names. (For example, broadcast.com.)
Public betas can cause shifts in economics. They have to be as carefully thought out as full version product releases were in the past. Let's see fewer public trial balloons. Aim better. Discuss it privately with friends before unleashing poorly thought out ideas in public.
Further, I remember hearing that Netscape was committed to the open standards process. Has this changed? BTW, I don't believe they should do *everything* in an open way, they need a proprietary edge, and their chief competitor, Microsoft, is an information gathering machine. So some things have to remain private.
But a crucial economic feature like the URL redirection in Netscape 4.5 is something that's very hard to support if it isn't openly documented and subject to replacement. I think it works against Netscape, longterm, if they try to exclusively own this feature.
Others have pointed out that I initially supported this feature in May in a piece called Making Money from DNS. Here's a link.
As more information became available, and my perspective shifted, I changed my mind. It happens!
PS: Prescience means apparent knowledge of things before they happen. The root of the word is "science". Pre-science. It's a neat word!