Friday, September 10, 2004

Using Phone Numbers as Domain Names

I have seen this from a number of companies in the
past, and have wondered exactly how valuable something
like this would be. Most people know names of
companies rather than phone numbers.

From the infocommerce report

ENUM, an initiative we first reported on in March
2001, seems to be finally picking up steam. Originally
spearheaded by VeriSign and Telcordia Technologies ,
the initiative attempts to bridge the Internet,
Phones, Fax and Wireless with a single contact address
-- your phone number. The UK Government is seriously
involved in efforts to stimulate the growth of ENUM in
the United Kingdom , adding to a general
endorsement of ENUM by the U.S. Department of Commerce
last year.

In essence, ENUM is a distributed database that
translates telephone numbers to IP addresses, which
means that phone numbers could be used in place of, or
in addition to, domain names. Currently, when you
enter into your browser,
Domain Name Servers (DNS) perform a lookup up on that
name, find that it is associated with a specific IP
address, and take your browser there. ENUM works
identically, and is actually integrated into the
existing DNS infrastructure.

Interestingly, ENUM can do more than a one-to-one
translation to an IP address. It can also link to
email addresses, instant messaging identities and
cell phone numbers. It's also important to note that
ENUM is designed to be queried by machines as well as
humans, meaning that all sorts of interesting
applications to perform seamless communications are
likely to emerge, not the least of which might be
streamlining voice over IP (VoIP) call connection.

A lot of governments seem excited about ENUM as a way
to bridge the wired phone network with the Internet.
Needless to say, the usual suspects in the domain
registration space are all circled around ENUM, hoping
to become the central registration, and hoping to tap
into all the associated registration fees.

Fees? Well, somebody has to pay for all this somehow,
and the current notion seems to be to use the existing
model for domain registration. And with all those
millions of consumers out there hankering for ENUM,
revenues could be huge.

Consumers? Hankering? Here we go again. Develop a new
technology, and everybody immediately assumes a
consumer market exists, primarily because they want a
consumer market to exist. After all, there are far
more consumers than businesses out there. Businesses
want to be contacted, and they want to make the
contact process as simple as possible. Is the same
true of consumers? Will millions of them rush out to
link and expose all their electronic contact data in a
searchable public database? I suspect that caution
will figure into this at some point.

As to hankering, I have to ask, just as I did with the
national cell phone directory: does the market really
want this? It's a huge issue, because not just revenue
is at stake, but the ability to achieve a critical
mass of listings, without which nobody will bother to
use ENUM, and the whole initiative will collapse. Too
much ambition and greed too early means the almost
certain death of ENUM.

Governments are behind ENUM in the general belief that
it will lead to technological progress, and hey,
they're not paying for it (and they may well tax it).
The big companies involved in ENUM see big profit
opportunities, although ENUM has all the
characteristics of technology in search of an
application. And unlike directory assistance and the
white pages, there's no opportunity to impose
"unlisted number" fees because the database does not
exist, and it depends on consumers to populate it.
It will be interesting to see how ENUM evolves, but in
my opinion, success will depend on scaling it down
before ramping it up.


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