- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

NEW YORK (AP) — The wait is over if you want an Internet address in Hebrew, Arabic or Thai.

You can even begin that address with a symbol like a smiley face, a zodiac sign or a copyright circle.

VeriSign Inc., the master-keeper of domain names ending in ".com," ".net" and ".org," began taking orders last week for hundreds of symbols and nearly two dozen language scripts from the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

They join European and other Asian languages that became available over the past several months.

A word of caution, though: Just because you can get a non-English address doesn't mean you can run a Web site right away. And it's all part of a test, which means your names might never work.

Still, these early ventures toward a truly multilingual Internet could well boost online usage abroad, where tens of thousands of impatient users have already ignored the strictures of the U.S.-based body that oversees online addresses.

Most computers sold abroad already have built-in capabilities for non-English characters. Web surfers with keyboards set for English will thus need to obtain character sets for other languages and modify their computer settings.

Many Internet engineers are worried, saying VeriSign is proceeding before the Internet Engineering Task Force approves standards.

"It's in the community's best interest to develop a standard," said Robert Gardos, chief technology officer for Register.com. "It leads to less problems."

Nevertheless, Register is taking name registrations on VeriSign's behalf, arguing that its competitors are also doing so.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the oversight body for online addresses, is to complete a technical study by June on potential problems introducing multiple languages to a mega-network built around English.

The core computers that handle Internet addresses currently understand only the 26 English letters, 10 numerals and a hyphen, along with a period for splitting addresses into sections.

Other languages must be translated into a string of characters. How to do that smoothly is what's in question.

Chuck Gomes, a VeriSign vice president, said the company would embrace whatever standards are adopted. He said the company should have no trouble adjusting its translations, but it's making no guarantees and warns that some characters could get dropped.

"It's a tough balance," Mr. Gomes said. "We have people on the one side saying, 'Why are you going so slow?' and the other saying, 'Slow down.' "

The whole effort could also hit a snag if a Michigan company, Walid Inc., enforces a patent it claims to have on the primary method under consideration for translating foreign names.

Already, more than 800,000 non-English names have been claimed.

Demand so far has been highest with Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters, available since November. About 40 European tongues, including those requiring special characters like umlauts, were introduced in February.

The latest round covers the remaining character sets approved by Unicode, which set standards for computer-generated characters. Languages awaiting approval, such as those of the Philippines, remain off-limits. Unicode also has few African scripts, reflecting low computer usage there.

Marcello Hunter, director of product marketing with VeriSign's registration unit, said some of the demand has come from "large corporations and businesses wanting to make sure their names in their languages are taken care of" as well as from speculators.

At least eight disputes have already been filed involving names registered in Japanese, Chinese and German. An arbitration panel recently ordered Zhu Jiajun of Shantou, China, to give the Japanese version of sankyo.com to Japanese pharmaceutical company Sankyo.

One of the remaining hurdles is making the names work.

Within several weeks, VeriSign will begin letting sites use the foreign characters, followed by ".mltbd.com," or "multilingual testbed." It's a way to segregate those names in case of problems.

Full resolution foreign characters followed only by ".com" won't be available for months, and even then it will be subject to change until engineering standards are finalized.

Ultimately, application developers will have to adapt their Web browsers and other Internet tools. E-mail support could prove most difficult because of the variety of software available, reducing the usefulness of non-English names.

"The attention, when you talk about valuable names, is all on having a Web site," said Scott Allan of Tucows Inc., one of three dozen companies taking orders for VeriSign. "But from a usability perspective, it's more important that people can get e-mail addresses."

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