Africa fumbles in Internet land grab - TechCentral

Africa fumbles in Internet land grab

Howard Rybko

In mid-June 2012, when the big Internet players revealed their cards in the highest stakes game in Web history, the best Africa could come up with was four predictable geographic generic top-level domains, namely .joburg, .durban, .capetown and .africa. There were also a few applications from our pals over at M-Net and MultiChoice, covering their brand names.

At stake is the ownership of the digital real estate represented by the few hundred new domain-name extensions that will start appearing in 2013. These include extensions such as .zulu, .web, .lotto and a possible 1 400 more. The new extensions are designed to unclog the constipation resulting from the lack of availability of .com names and the handful of alternatives such as .net, .biz and .org.

The problem is that no one really knows how this is going to play out. It is possible that the new names may cause an online earthquake that will change our digital business models for ever. However some big players, including Facebook, haven’t even bought a ticket to this movie. Many others, including Microsoft, Apple, Jaguar and Sony, have been only slightly more adventurous, having come up with the US$185 000 required for each registration to cover their brands and trademarks.

Closer to home, the entire African continent accounted for a paltry 13 English name applications. That’s peanuts compared to the enterprising Donuts Inc, which went out on a $65m limb, applying for a staggering 307 new generic top-evel domains. The names that Donuts (Domain Nuts) have applied for run the gamut from .rugby to .casino, .family, .blog and even a controversial few like .sucks. If things turn out as Donuts hopes, it will profit by making it affordable and simple for businesses and individuals to lay claim to their online territory.

Google’s play
After Donuts, the next biggest applicant is Google. Under the quaint name Charleston Road Registry, the Web search giant has applied for 101 top-level domains. As a long time Google watcher, I have wondered long and hard on the possible strategy behind Google’s play. So have many others. (Note that Amazon has applied for 76 largely generic names and may possibly have a similar strategy, since many of the e-retailer’s applications are in competition with Google’s.)

It seems to me that that Google runs a one-trick magic show, producing an ocean of cash from advertising that is generated by search. Most of this revenue comes from the millions of small and medium businesses that are plugged into Google via their credit cards and tithed monthly for targeted traffic.

In order to grow, Google needs to be connected to more credit cards. Since about 70% of small companies worldwide are yet to obtain domain names or an online presence, Google needs to find ways of allowing these kinds of enterprises to get online.

Domain registration and verification are huge hurdles for newcomers. Finding an appropriate name is tough, but wiring the new domain to e-mail and Web content is much harder. This is further complicated by yearly fees and the various service providers that become involved.

What if Google provided a free domain-name registration service, a service that would allow users to select a meaningful name from a range of possible domain extensions, plug in some basic company information, provide a list of mailbox names and then one click later they could be fully online?

At this point, all the newcomer is missing would be some customer feet, which could easily be provided by a complimentary AdWords voucher.

Time will tell what Google’s strategy is, but if Google and Amazon get it right, Facebook may regret the preoccupation with listing on the stock market that caused it to miss the next Internet tsunami.

Other players are bound to be affected by all the new domain-name strategies. Many of the niche feeders in the Web ecology, like the Internet service providers, will use the domain registration process as a route to netting fresh paying customers. Also affected could be the huge businesses of Network Solutions, VeriSign and others that rely on revenue from bloated charges for yearly domain registrations and security certificate renewals.

The lucrative game of domain investment, which has seen some traders make huge windfalls, is bound to change as well.

It is definitely going to be an interesting year ahead for online organisations.

  • Howard Rybko is CEO of Syncrony, a Gauteng-based Web design and content management company

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