Jul 082011

Today I’m pleased to publish the first of a two part interview with Antony Van Couvering, of Mind + Machines. As you will read, Antony has been a force in the domain name business since before there way such a thing. The recent approval of new top level domains (TLDs) by ICANN promises to fundamentally change domaining, and Antony is right in the thick of that transformation as well.

So there is no better time to get a true insider’s take on the gTLD process. In the early 2000s Antony and I both worked at VeriSign, for different business units. The  second part of this interview will be published on Tuesday, July 12.

Q: Can you give a background of your long involvement in the domain name registration business?

I began in 1997 with an email to Jon Postel at IANA to find out what these ccTLD things were. Jon and I began talking and it wasn’t long afterwards that I joined up with an English partner, Ivan Pope, to form NetNames. I ran the U.S. branch, NetNames USA. I quickly began defining what is now called the corporate market among domain registrars, the space now dominated by Mark Monitor and a few others, by contacting and working with many of America’s biggest companies and law firms. In those days people were very wary of the idea of domain names, especially ccTLDs, and were struggling to understand what it meant for their brands. It was pretty much the wild west, and I was able to help by bringing the perspective of TLD managers to companies in a way that made sense to them. Eventually Ivan and I sold the company to NetBenefit, now called Group NBT.

During that time I got quite involved with Internet governance issues, working with Jon Postel to create a proposal for revamping the .US domain and then spending a lot time helping to set up ICANN. As part of that work, I helped form the International Association of Top Level Domains (IATLD), which pushed back very forcefully against ICANN’s attempts to rewrite the ground rules for ccTLDs, and in particular to effectively deprecate RFC 1591. Then as now, the major challenge was dealing with governments, whose approach of “sovereignty” and “rights” is very different from the consensus-based, co-operative ethos that characterized the Internet then, and still does to a large extent.

I then started NameEngine, which addressed the same market and clients as NetNames, and did very well until I sold NameEngine to VeriSign. As part of the deal I worked for them for a couple of years. It was a pretty strange place to me back then; Mark McLaughlin and his team have done a great job to make VeriSign the company it is today.

Having launched several ccTLDs during my time at NetNames and having helped several others, I’ve always been very interested in new gTLDs. When ICANN first approved the development of the program a few years ago, I decided to get involved, and began blogging and consulting under the umbrella of Names@Work.

Then in January 2009 I started Minds + Machines with Elaine Pruis. We got an exclusive license from CoCCA to use their platform for gTLDs, which we rechristened Espresso, and with Garth Miller of CoCCA began developing the platform to meet the evolving requirement of ICANN for new gTLD registries — as everyone else in the industry had to do as well. Soon afterwards, our investor company Top Level Domain Holdings, Ltd., which is a public company listed on the AIM market of the London Stock Exchange, acquired 100% of Minds + Machines, and I’m now the CEO of both Minds + Machines and Top Level Domain Holdings. We’ve raised quite a bit of money and we’re looking forward to participating in the opening of the new gTLD space.

Q: ICANN just approved the introduction of new TLDs, and applications are expected by January 2012. How would you characterize the opportunity this represents, for operators and users?

The opportunity is truly historic. ICANN was set up to make new gTLDs a reality, and it’s taken 12 years of shouting to get it done, after a couple of false starts. While subsequent rounds are sure to happen someday, it’s anyone’s guess as to when: this round took six years to accomplish. For applicants, there’s suddenly a rush to get things done: applications to ICANN have to be submitted during the window that lasts from January 12 to April 12, 2012. That means that applicants have just a few months to put together a pretty complicated and serious application, and to round up the money they need. For users, it’s a great time to get a short, memorable domain name that matches their brand or their name or represents the business they’re in. Right now under .com it’s tremendously expensive, since good names have to be purchased in the secondary market.

Overall, the major benefit from new gTLDs will be to re-introduce semantic meaning into the characters that follow the dot in a domain name. While most country-code top-level domain names have a meaning, either in a geographic sense or as a repurposed gTLD (e.g., .tv), the most popular gTLDs are essentially meaningless at this point: anyone can register anything in .com, .net, and .org, and they do — those three characters after the dot no longer mean “commercial,” or “network,” or “organization.”

One commonly voiced criticism of new top-level domains goes something like, “No-one needs them, everyone just uses search anyway.” Even if you ignore the data that about 15% of all traffic is from typing in a URL or using a bookmark, new TLDs will actually work very well with search. I just wrote about this in a recent blog post. This is just another way that new TLDs will benefit users.

Q: Recently your company announced it was working together with Neustar for certain TLD opportunities. How will you be working together?

We have a two-way exclusive agreement with Neustar for geographical names, with some exceptions for projects we undertook before joining announcing our partnership. The deal is that we agree to use their registry platform for geographical TLDs, and they agree to refer all relevant clients to us as the front-end partner. I think it’s a great deal for both of us: we’ve been busy over the last two years making a lot of contacts with cities, while Neustar has a back-end that is very solid, and a recent success doing the back-end for .CO.

Does this mean we don’t like Espresso anymore? No, it doesn’t — we love Espresso. But as everyone who has been following the progress of the new gTLD program knows, governments are extremely risk averse, and governments are the decision-makers when it comes to geographical gTLDs. To a government, Neustar’s profile as a big public company on the New York Stock Exchange, with a $2B market cap, makes a lot of the queasy what-ifs go away. We are interested in participating to the fullest extent in the new gTLD space, and we’ll do what it takes to make that happen. In this case, we thought the partnership with Neustar made a lot of sense, and we still do.

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