03 April, 2009

.Mobi isn't half of a Melville classic

In 2006, I first stood up in front of the domain world (from my now-collapsed platform as CNET’s On the Dot columnist) and issued a challenge:

Call me Ishmael. Go ahead, I dare you. Call me Ishmael, because frankly I'm at sea when it comes to understanding what the sponsors of the dot-mobi domain space were thinking. The mere dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org suffixes were not enough for them. They needed something that sounded epic, a whale of a good idea, and so they came up with their own top-level domain: .mobi. But beneath the surface lurks, well, not very much, really.

Now, almost three years after the sun rose on the .mobi domain, my opinion holds fast.

If you've missed the dot-mobi story so far, here's a quick summary: Back in May 2006, the sponsors of a mobile top-level domain (mTLD) began sunrise preregistration of domain names with the delightful-sounding dot-mobi suffix. The sponsors included all the big mobile players: Ericsson, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung Electronics, T-Mobile, and Vodafone. The idea was to create a forum just for mobile users, serving up pages specially designed for mobile platforms.

A noble idea, for sure, but most people believe that a top-level domain (TLD) is not really the proper forum for this.

If you've missed the TLD story so far, the dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org domains were designed in the early 1990s to create separate spaces for separate entities--specifically commercial enterprises, networks, and nonprofit organizations. Other top-level domains appeared in the years that followed: dot-info and dot-museum, for example, for all-information sites and museums.

The waters became muddy almost immediately. Individuals and companies rushed in and registered domains at will, either not knowing or not caring what the TLDs really mean. To domain registrants, a d0t-com was a way to brand themselves on the Internet, and if a dot-com wasn't available, a dot-net or dot-org would suffice. And when it came to later waves of d0t-whatevers, a museum is both an information source and a nonprofit, so surely dot-info and dot-org apply to them just as much as dot-museum does. The result? Most museums just use dot-org domains.

Of all the best-known top-level domains, only dot-edu and dot-gov seem to have remained pure.

By 2004, the point of the top level domain space was so lost to the world at large--including ICANN, the body that's supposed to regulate it--that two really bad ideas appeared: .mobi and .xxx. At the time, the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee strongly condemned them both. The notion of a .xxx red light district was utterly impractical to enforce, and little more than a springboard for political posturing. But Berners-Lee reserved his real disapproval for the .mobi idea: It actually undermined one of the fundamental points of the Internet: It's supposed to be device-independent, so restricting a top-level domain to a single class of devices is just plain wrong. And if the Founder of the Web disapproves of something that much, people should at least think about it.

But that didn't happen. After all, philosophy has not been the driving force behind Web development. It became market driven almost immediately, and remains that way. So what are Web content providers to think? Should they register dot-mobi domains to protect their trademarks? Or should they concentrate on making mobile-friendly sites and promote their wares or services or ideas in some other way?

That’s up to them, of course, but I have my own opinion.

The real way to attract mobile users to mobile Web services is to design your Web site well for a handheld device. Having spent months at a time launching and relaunching Web sites over the past fifteen years, I can hear the collective groan from Web creative teams. But as every tourist board knows, if you want the visitors, you have to make the destination appealing.

As things stood in 2006, the Net came in a limited form to mobile users. But many Web developers put in the effort to attract people by creating really mobile-friendly sites. Reuters mobile, Google News mobile, BusinessWeek, and the BBC looked fantastic on a BlackBerry.

Google news also did a good job because it stripped down the news pages from outside sites into a mobile-friendly format. Mobile Web search also had strong showings from the XHTML version of Google, the Answers.com mobile, and the WAP version of Yahoo.

With the real work of integrating more advanced Web services, such as Web mail, IM, contact address books, calendars, and photos, Yahoo did yeoman’s work with its Yahoo Go for Mobile portal services, albeit in mid-2006 reaching only Symbian OS phones in the Nokia 60 series and available only via Cingular.

What lurks beneath

In the past three years, none of the sites that worked at creating the first mobile-friendly content profited much from the dot-mobi domain. And the ones that did smelled a bit too fishy for my taste.

Take the domain auction site Sedo for example. They took their cut on the auction that sold Flowers.mobi for $200,000 in 2006. A year later, they took an even bigger cut from the sale of Music.mobi ($616,000), Games.mobi ($401,500), Sports.mobi ($101,000), Movies.mobi ($82,000), and Videos.mobi and Photos.mobi ($51,000 apiece).

Who’d sink that much money into a mess of domain name, and why? The who is Alvaro Albarracin. The why, according to his 2007 blog entry: "I am not planning on developing these names, I am planning on selling these sometime in the near future."

So the .mobi domain space has become the equivalent of the tulip bulb in 16th century Holland: a commodity with no intrinsic value except as a token in the game of Speculation.

In short, the .mobi domain space amounts to another gambling forum. And as every gambler knows, the house always wins. The house in this case is the people who administer the domain space:

- The registrars take your fifteen bucks in registration money
- ICANN that takes a cut of that
- and the real money, and it is really big money, goes to the group that created the dot-mobi domain space

That last group comes off looking pretty unethical. Even if you assume there's nothing wrong with marketing-fueled free market speculation, it's ony ethical if you play fair. But they really didn't. Not content to create a spurious domain space and take administration fees for running it, they reserved the really lucrative names for themselves. They didn't allow speculators to register high-profile names like sports.mobi; they put a hold on generic names they deemed attractive and staged auctions to sell them off to the highest bidder.

Here's an example of the kind of press release they sent out to announce their scheme:

DUBLIN, Ireland and WASHINGTON, D.C.– September 23, 2008 – dotMobi – the company behind the .mobi internet domain designed to help consumers find mobile-friendly content – today announced a special online auction for 200 highly desired premium .mobi domain names including actors.mobi, bands.mobi, blackjack.mobi, boys.mobi, cellphones.mobi, doctors.mobi, games.mobi, homeloans.mobi, house.mobi, model.mobi, quotes.mobi, racing.mobi, stamps.mobi, vip.mobi and xxx.mobi.

As part of its ongoing series of unique methods of allocating Internet domain names, dotMobi is working with Sedo, the market leader in online domain name auctions, to launch the auction on November 5, 2008.

Doesn't anyone know what conflict of interest means anymore? This release would be a damning piece of evidence, if anyone cared enough about ethics to prosecute a case against these profiteers. It's not as evil as the kind of Ponzi scheme that sank Wall Street, but something about the whole .mobi scene smells like bilge water to me.

Or perhaps I'm being a bit too jaded. For all I know, the may be some good in the dot-mobi space. There may be dot-mobi sites with real value for those who are communicating or disseminating information or entertainment to the masses. Do you have any favorite .mobi sites? Do you think I’m being the other half of Herman Melville’s magnum opus? If so, you know what to do. Call me "Ishmael". Go ahead. I dare you.

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