At the end of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's hourlong address at the company's recent Government Leaders Summit, a representative from the Internet Society of China made the following remark in the ensuing Q&A session.
"Mr. Ballmer, now we still have to type in 'weather.com.cn' to check the weather. Most Chinese people can't do that. They just want to type in 'tian qi' (Chinese for weather)," he said. Short of a more concrete answer, Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft needs to work better with the various domain name authorities to resolve this problem.
The observation by the Chinese delegate is not a revelation, but it again brings to the fore the long-debated issue of internationalized domain names (IDN) implementation. Simply put, it questions the ability of the Internet to handle non-Roman characters, such as words in Chinese or Hindi.
The Internet as we know it today is built on a Roman alphanumeric script, technically referred to as ASCII (American Standard Code of Information Interchange) characters. This means that only ASCII characters can be keyed in to the browser's address bar, and these are in turn converted into numerical IP addresses denoting the millions of destinations on the World Wide Web.
This approach works fine in the English-savvy world. However, for non-English speakers, they could be faced with the unenviable task of rote-learning numerical IP addresses, which is highly improbable, or the English spellings of dozens of Web sites they want to access.
In other words, while multilingual content has swelled in cyberspace in the past decade, the method of Web-address input still revolves mainly around the English language, a sticking point which has yet to be resolved until recently, despite the marked progress of the Internet.
This leads IDN proponents to ask the question: Is it easier to teach English to the growing number of non-English speaking Internet population around the world, or do we tweak the current Domain Name System (DNS) to accommodate the language nuances of these users?
The long road to multilingualism
Unbeknownst to Ballmer and the China delegate, an effort to bring IDNs from concept to reality has been under way since the mid-1990s, but the journey has been staggeringly slow.
Tan Tin Wee, a professor with the National University of Singapore who spearheaded the launch of Pacific Internet, an ISP, designed one of the world's first multilingual domain name systems in 1996.
Five years later, Internet governing body ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) formed an IDN Committee to examine the technicalities of multilingual domain name adoption. Despite initial patent squabbles, a set of standards was finally published in March 2003.
Instead of tweaking the current DNS and risking destabilizing the existing Internet infrastructure, ICANN's guidelines--formulated by its technical arm, the Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF--dictate how vernacular characters can be converted to Unicode, an encoding system that supports around 40 languages including Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Russian. The Unicode characters are in turn encoded in ASCII for Internet transmission, leaving the foundation of the Net unchanged.
Years after its initial conceptualization, IDNs can now be registered with domain name registries like VeriSign and I-dns.net. VeriSign offers a hybrid "multilingual.com" approach in which top-level domains like .com and .net will continue to be in English, but second-level domains are available in local languages like Chinese.
I-dns.net is promoting a format that allows the entire address string to be in native characters, a method that appears to meet the need for multilingualism more fully.
Both registries pledge compliance with IETF standards and have claimed early successes with their new IDN offerings, with strong uptake in Asian markets like China, Japan and South Korea. The two companies also require users to install plug-ins before they can key in native characters in the address bar.
The online population is expected to reach 1 billion next year; speeding up the implementation of IDNs could help fuel the next chapter of the Internet's growth and open up immense opportunities for areas like e-government and e-commerce. Research already indicates slowing Internet user growth in developed countries, but in contrast, the pool is set to expand in developing countries for at least 10 years to come.
Major tech behemoths like Microsoft are ramping up language-localization efforts in an attempt to grow their customer bases beyond developed nations. This year, Microsoft launched a low-cost flavor of Windows XP called Starter Edition for five developing countries, and its efforts to get more users online could be further helped by incorporating an IDN-compatible plug-in in its Internet Explorer browser. In tandem with Microsoft's push, chip giants Intel and Advanced Micro Devices are considering low-cost computer blueprints for developing nations.
While foreign IT vendors are going local, top-level support for implementation and education on IDNs, however, seems lacking, as efforts have been sporadic to date. At a time when things are moving at Internet speed, isn't seven years too long a wait for IDNs to come to fruition?
The silver lining in all this is that the government in China has reportedly put its full weight behind Chinese domain names. With the mainland's economic and political clout, it will be of little surprise that authorities and companies in other parts of the world could soon join in to make the global Internet more multilingual and, specifically, more China-friendly.
Winston Chai is a senior reporter for CNETAsia.