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    Alternate Roots RealNames plays Unreal
    posted by tbyfield on Saturday May 11 2002, @02:22PM

    According to Newsbytes, RealNames, the first major contender to provide an "alternative" to DNS, is set to shut its doors within a matter of weeks. [Updated Sun May 12 09:45:09 EDT 2002]

    The report states that the proximate cause is the decision by Microsoft not to renew its contract, which expired in March, with RealNames.

    While it's sad to see another "innovator" go down the tubes, it's worth noting that RealNames's odyssey was (imo) not one of the better trends in the history of the politics of naming. Let's revisit a bit of that history.

    RealNames's approach was, in essence, to interpret the domain name system itself as damage and route around it. Unlike later companies working in this nebulous terrain, such as New.net (which was born in part in response to ICANN's whimso-tyrannical approach to new TLDs), RealNames's interest seemingly had nothing to do with any issues of equity, freedom of speech, or expansion of the properly so-called namespace. Instead, it sought to provide a service that would extend into the "space" of the URL the payola-like logic of paid-for search engine rankings, which were then beginning to seriously distort the main "navigational" alternatives to DNS. The basic idea was fairly simple: use the URL field of a browser to intercept user input and substitute "real" names -- bought from RealNames -- to guide them into a completely privatized namespace.

    Not surprisingly, RealNames's first big customer in May 1998 was the search engine Altavista, which at that point was going downhill fast, propelled by the weight of all manner of encumbrances. The rub? According to NTK, RealNames was paying Altavista, not vice versa.

    Less surprising in a way, but more alarming in others, was RealNames's next big client, Microsoft, whose tendency to detourn open standards has been widely noted. The two companies closed a contract in March 2000, and RealNames "keywords" became yet another mechanism by which MS tried to wean "its" users away from the internet. Hence, for example, the rather remarkable double-plus-doublespeak of a 7 June 200 RealNames press release issued in defense of MS:

    According to Keith Teare, founder and CEO of RealNames Corporation, "Has anybody considered what this [the US Government's decision to prosecute Microsoft and the court's decision to break up the company] means for Microsoft's partners and the future of technology? RealNames is a start-up with technologies that improve the Internet experience for consumers through a natural language navigation system, using Internet Keywords instead of lengthy web addresses. Microsoft embraced our open standards-based architecture in March 2000 because it makes perfect sense for consumers to use Internet Keywords within MSN and Internet Explorer. [Emphasis added.]
    That was then. Now that this happy symbiosis has come to an end, RealNames's founder, CEO, and Board Chair, Keith Teare is taking a much less benign view of Microsoft's relationship to language. The disgruntled former employee puts it quite bluntly on his personal website: "I am sure that Microsoft will do an excellent job of misinforming the public about the reasons for this decision and so I want to put the record straight" (emphasis added). But Microsoft isn't "misinforming" people, Mr. Teare -- they're merely redirecting them.

    In the same statement, Teare nods to the fact that VeriSign (a RealNames investor, it seems) "had just [as of 6 December 2001?] committed to a plan to give every com, net and org customer 5 free promotional Keywords for 30 days." Say what? Verisign, the Über-registry, was planning to subvert transparent user-to-resource connection at the level of the URL field in browsers? Indeed. As Verisign explains it:

    A perfect complement to domain names, [RealNames'] Keywords are Web addresses consisting of natural language names (e.g., "The New York Times") that work automatically in the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser without entering prefixes ("www") or extensions (".com"), redirecting the user to a predetermined Web site or a specific page within that Web site. [Emphasis added.]
    Of course, prepending the hostname "www." and appending the TLD ".com" to whatever someone types into a URL field is now a standard feature that many people have come to rely on. Naturally, then, it makes perfect sense for Verisign to align itself with Microsoft by substituting something else for what someone types and "redirecting the user to a predetermined" -- that is, non-DNS-based -- "Web site."

    That, in itself, is dubious enough, but this broadening of scope has potentially serious consequences, as Verisign happily acknowledges. Its premium (i.e., expensive) RealNames-based offering, "Keyword Review," "help[s] deter cyber-squatting" -- of words that are not domain names. What John Gilmore rightly denounced as the "congenital confusion between trademarks and domain names" was bad enough; but, as many critics of this confusion have been predicting for years (this one included), we now see "cybersquatting" applied to language other than domain names merely because its context -- a browser's URL field -- is the same. (For a reductio ad absurdum of this, see Futurefeedforward's increasingly probable spoof of a new Microsoft Word feature circa 2011.)

    Under the circumstances, it's hard to shed tears over Microsoft's shedding of Teare and RealNames. Unfortunately, as one of the MS employees said (according to scribe's notes Teare has published) in the 7 May meeting where MS broke the bad news to RealNames, "we need to separate the people from the IP--IP is the asset, people are free agents." In other words, RealNames may be going away, but this redirection/substitution technique surely won't. Now that MS has pulled the plug on RN, it's interesting to speculate what MS -- and Versign -- might have up their respective sleeves. Aside from ".net", of course.

    One ICANN Watch contributor puts it thusly:

    According to this Newsbyte article, Realnames, a company that sold keyword names which worked in the IE browser is closing up shop due to Microsofts' decision not to renew their exclusive contract with Realnames. Yet another reason not to make your business reliant on M$.

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    This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.
    RealNames plays Unreal | Log in/Create an Account | Top | 17 comments | Search Discussion
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    Re: RealNames plays Unreal
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Saturday May 11 2002, @04:15PM (#6245)
    User #2810 Info
    F---edcompany.com carried this a week ago:
    Rumor has it RealNames' contract with Microsoft, the only way its crappy keywords work, expires today. Oh and... and their $30 million debt with microsoft comes due today too... Looks like bankruptcy in the midst.....
    When: May 03 2002 12:00AM
    Company: RealNames
    I didn't report on it at the time as it was near impossible to figure out which of many contracts with Micro$oft might have been expiring, or which loan might have been due, Micro$oft had invested $70m at one point. Fsckedco has been known to be wrong before, or at least premature (about new.net for example).

    Veri$ign also had a 10% stake in RealNames, with an option to go to 20% which they never exercised. The interesting thing to watch now is what becomes of the assets? It is already integrated in Micro$oft's Internet Explorer web browser, it might well cost more to take it out than leave it in. Veri$ign's IDN (internationalized domain name) service also used RealNames technology. One can imagine either or both of these behemoths picking over the remains. While the company may be dead I suspect the technology will live on, and perhaps even grow.

    As to why they failed, in addition to the reasons given, I mean, come on, 80 employees (and that after prior layoffs)? One could get away with that before the dotcom crash but that was long ago. The only surprise is that they've lasted till now. And like many once rising dotcom stars who crashed and burned, they also failed in their execution. I registered a RealName when they first came out. They pre-screened each name and wouldn't allow actual words, eg: auction, because then a single site would have a monopoly on that term. A year later I got a renewal notice that was so poorly written I couldn't figure out what I was required to do. I then got another notice saying I should disregard the previous one, with no further explanation. That was the end of my use of RealNames, nor have I since used them in a browser to go anywhere. They also got into hot water for reversing their stand on words and selling KeyWord 'books' to Amazon.com for a pile of money. There was a hue and cry about that and I don't now recall whether they backed down. They just never seemed to get their act together.

    They really had a golden opportunity, particularily with IDN (as true IDN in the DNS is years away, if ever), but they fumbled the ball, and this despite the backing and leverage of two near monopolies in crucial areas. If either/both of them assume more direct control of the technology, it may be too soon to count it out entirely. -g

    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Re: RealNames plays Unreal
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Sunday May 12 2002, @04:19AM (#6256)
    User #2810 Info
    Keith Teare, founder and former head of RealNames, speaks out on the plug being pulled. Some interesting bits:

    VeriSign had just committed to a plan to give every com, net and org customer 5 free promotional Keywords for 30 days. This would have resulted in widespread awareness and great revenue boost.
    I don't see this as a panacea. That would have required that most of them would be very obscure keywords, hence little traffic. And even less revenue.
    We [MicroSoft] do not believe in "Naming", we believe in search. This is because we control search 100% whereas we could never control naming. Some of us believe search results are a better experience than navigation through naming. Sure the URL and the DNS are broken, but to fix it is a big job with no clear reward for Microsoft.
    I fail to see how Microsoft controls search 100%, even using Internet Explorer and MSN search (as is now displayed when one types a non-existent domain name using IE's URL line). While Microsoft has some control over search rankings, and could assume more by either screening each submission like Yahoo, or going to a pay for placement model like overture.com, it still wouldn't be 100%. Those not liking the results would use another search engine, and both screening and pay for placement results fall far short of using relevance algorithms as Google does. AOL recently replaced its use of Overture for searching with Google, for example. I can't see even Microsoft trying a stunt where IE wouldn't resolve google.com or yahoo.com.
    The only naming technology in the world capable of allowing non-ASCII characters to be used as web addresses is being killed at birth - before it succeeds and becomes "out of control".
    At birth (1998) is a bit of a stretch even without internet time. It also isn't the only non-ASCII naming technology, walid.com is one of the others.
    Now, Bill Bliss - who runs MSN Search and was until recently in charge of the RealNames relationship, has in the last few weeks been moved to "Natural Language Platforms" and is charged with developing a variant of our system. The browser is now back under Microsoft's control and it is possible that - having learned much from RealNames - it will develop its own version of our resolution service.
    Which is what I said here earlier. This may not allow MicroSoft 100% control, but it gives them more control. IE is the default browser for a majority (putatively 88%) of the world's users. The percentage in non-primarily English speaking countries is probably at least that high. Functional, though faux, IDN resolution would give MicroSoft yet another near monopoly. In practical terms, that's close enough. Indeed it is probably better than having a 100% monopoly as it slows down the regulators.
    What is shared cannot be controlled.
    Microsoft, and ICANN, understand that one very well. And MicroSoft has been at it far longer and now has a massive head start on IDN resolution. Be afraid... -g
    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Re: RealNames plays Unreal
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Sunday May 12 2002, @03:05PM (#6266)
    User #2810 Info
    tbyfield writes:
    we now see "cybersquatting" applied to language other than domain names merely because its context -- a browser's URL field -- is the same.
    I was going to point out that commonname, another keyword provider, had been signed on to WIPO for a Keyword DRP for some time, went to the link and lo and behold, RealNames is listed too. That is a fairly recent listing I think. I guess WIPO can kiss that revenue stream goodbye. It probably won't be long before they get new ones though, eg: subdomains. Isn't disney.example.com at least as potentially confusing? Isn't geocities.com/disney/?

    Slashdot coverage of RealNames imminent demise here. Keith Teare has responded to a few posts here. And his own site seems to be a work in progress, it has changed somewhat in form and content in the last few hours. And it's just changed again, should I start doing screengrabs? :) The link to 3. RealNames official release on the issue still only points to their home page containing older press releases. And is it just me or does Ballmer look a bit too much for comfort like Louis Touton? -g

    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Re: RealNames plays Unreal
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Monday May 13 2002, @09:42AM (#6303)
    User #2810 Info
    The RealNames press release on this is now available on their home page, in fact it pretty much replaces their former home page. And further interesting coverage is available at the icann.blog, see left sidebar of this page for subjects. -g
    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Re: RealNames plays Unreal
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Tuesday May 14 2002, @07:13AM (#6324)
    User #2810 Info
    Keith Teare now has a weblog full of fascinating stuff. He say's he'll be on CNET radio at 12:15 pm PT Tuesday. You can tune in in San Francisco on 910 AM, in Boston on 890 AM, and elsewhere via the internet here, afterwards archived. He'll be interviewed by David Coursey, Executive Editor of Anchor Desk, who has written about RealNames demise here. There's an earlier CNET audio interview here.

    Not that I want to reproduce the entire blog here, but Teare also posts a revealing Kevin Murphy piece about the impact this will have on Veri$ign's IDN service.

    And M. Stuart Lynn sends him a letter of condolence (and apparently also wrote Bill Gates, though that doesn't seem to be available) reproduced below.

    -----Original Message-----
    From: M. Stuart Lynn [mailto:lynn@icann.org]
    Sent: Sunday, May 12, 2002 8:42 PM
    To: kteare@hotmail.com
    Subject: Sympathy

    Dear Keith:

    I was saddened to hear of the demise of RealNames at the hands of Microsoft. It must be very hard for you and all of your colleagues after all that you have put into it. I think you are right: the real story is that Microsoft wants to do it itself, control it, and own it. This does not bode well for the future of Internet navigation.

    What I do not understand is why they would rather not buy you out rather than let you go.

    I hope you can rebound soon and get into some other business that is not vulnerable to Microsoft. You have been a good friend to ICANN, and we hope we can work with you in some other capacity.

    What happens to all of the keywords that have been issued? Will they cease to resolve, or does Microsoft expect to continue the service?

    Warm regards and best wishes for your next steps.


    Lynn seems a tad concerned about Micro$oft. I somehow doubt David Hernand of new.net would get a similar letter in similar circumstances. Must be the inclusion of those pesky dots. -g
    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
    • Oops by fnord Tuesday May 14 2002, @10:31AM
    Keith Teare, meet Christopher Wilkinson
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Wednesday May 15 2002, @07:48AM (#6375)
    User #2810 Info
    Here. -g
    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
    Re: RealNames plays Unreal
    by fnord (groy2kNO@SPAMyahoo.com) on Saturday May 18 2002, @06:41AM (#6443)
    User #2810 Info
    Keith Teare (belatedly, because M$ never told him) finds out that Micro$oft has a patent on a keyword technology whch postdates his own, and a recently filed application to amend it. -g
    [ Reply to This | Parent ]
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