One of the perverse ironies of the World Wide Web is that in order to reach a virtually unlimited number of customers, a business has to navigate one of the most fiendishly clever devices ever created by the mortal mind: the domain name.
The machinery appears deceptively simple to operate. Just pick an ideal .com-modity that's easy to remember and hard to misspell. But, increasingly, this is when the challenge really begins.
An ideal domain name first has to pass, camel-like, through the restrictive eye of the available-domain-name needle. With domain names being snapped up like lawmakers at a tobacco lobbyists' convention, the obvious ones frequently aren't available. That's why, for example, Catalano Consulting and Byte Me are found at www.catalanoconsulting.com, and not at catalano.com (a deli in Ohio) or byteme.com (once a soft porn site, and now, thankfully, a free e-mail provider).
Even if a desired domain is available, the camel still has one more hump to squeeze through the needle's eye: The name better not impinge upon the trademark of another company.
While trademark law allows for firms with similar names to co-exist in the physical world as long as they're not in the same business, such fine distinctions aren't appreciated on the Web. Thus, both Apple Records and Apple Computer can't have apple.com (the nerds got there first), and both Ford Motor Co. and Ford Modeling Agency can't have ford.com (the automotive Ford got it, though the alternative would have been a much more graphically pleasing site). The owners of Spree.com, an online gift-shopping site, discovered this limitation last year when they became legally entangled with Sprint; the telecommunications giant demanded their domain name for the prepaid Spree phone card.
Yet if there's a leading economic indicator as to how important the Web has become to physical-world commerce, it's in how some brick-and-mortar firms aren't endlessly searching for the right domain—they're modifying their own corporate names to mirror the Internet domain they already have or can get.
Consider the cases of local companies. After a decade in business, Bellevue-based Branch Always Software (maker of emulator software for doing things like running Mac programs on Windows) registered "emulators.com" for its Web page. In mid-1996 Branch Always changed its corporate name to Emulators, Inc. Software Testing Labs, also in Bellevue, became ST Labs (www.stlabs.com) in late 1996 to match its existing domain name.
This nascent trend has picked up steam. Egghead became Egghead.com this year after it shut its retail stores and focused its entire business online. Eastside high-tech public relations firm Kaufer Miller Revell was researching a name change recently and settled on the KMC Group after finding kmcgroup.com was available, and that many domains for other names were not.
For some real-world firms looking to find an ideal domain, the Web is a modern straitjacket. For others, it prompts a positively Shakespearean re-examination: What's in a name?
If there's any question what computer companies themselves consider the most important technology, doubt was swept away at last month's Information Technology Exposition and Conference (ITEC) at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. Tucked against the wall among booths touting Internet products, networking solutions, and database software was an exhibit that seemed to have the most consistent crowds. The company? Filterfresh of Kent. The product? High-tech, automated coffee service for offices. The technology army doesn't travel on its stomach—it travels on its nervous system.
Byte, the oldest personal computer magazine (founded in 1975) and one of the most revered with a half-million subscribers, is now officially on hiatus after publishing its July issue. Byte's existing regime effectively ended its reign in late May shortly after the magazine was sold by McGraw-Hill to CMP Media, publisher of Windows magazine and a dozen others.
CMP has promised a new Byte in the fall. If it does arise, it'll be a different beast: The casualties of the May palace coup reportedly included every previous editorial staff member, including longtime contributor Jerry Pournelle (www.jerrypournelle.com) who wrote the Chaos Manor column for two decades. Byte was fiercely independent and focused on new technology—no matter whether it was on Windows or some other, less popular and advertiser-attractive platform. The fate of the pioneering computer magazine proves one thing: Pioneers can get arrows in the back no matter how long after they've blazed a new trail.
A couple of readers noted that among the many excellent online-only newsletters I referenced ("New(s) Media," 6/18), I neglected to mention Adam Engst's popular, and locally originated, TidBITS (www.tidbits.com). The Issaquah-based e-letter has been published continuously on the Internet since 1990, definitely making it a grand old man in Net years. Yet it apparently has avoided the onset of virtual senility.
Observations that bugs continue to plague packaged software, including those ranging from annoying to serious in Microsoft's products ("Infested," 6/4) led one reader to comment that this "proves the inevitable has occurred: Microsoft's greatest, and only serious, enemy is itself."
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at email@example.com.