Domain name registry operators have predicted that "hundreds" of well-known companies will apply to ICANN to create new "dot-brand" top-level internet domains.
But it is still far from clear how many of these potential new domains will turn into thriving, active spaces and how many will be expensive digital wastelands with little to no content.
At a meeting in Singapore last month, ICANN approved its new gTLD program, which will enable essentially any company to apply to operate essentially any string as a top-level domain.
As many as 500 applications could be processed in the first round, which kicks off on 12 January, 2012, and a substantial portion of these are expected to be dot-brands – extensions such as .coke, .apple or .twitter, for example.
In a February 2010 report, ICANN predicted 100 to 200 dot-brand applications, but registry operators think this will turn out to be a low-ball estimate, due in part to the rush by companies to defensively claim their dot-brand domains.
"Many of them are not sure how they will use the gTLD, what will work and what won't work, but they're very wary of what their competition might do," said Ken Hansen, senior director of business development at .biz registry Neustar.
Because there's a limited three-month window to apply for a new extension in the first round, and no firm date for subsequent rounds, some large companies don't want to risk seeing their rivals secure their dot-brands, potentially putting them at a competitive disadvantage.
There's also the risk that some brands may barred from later rounds under ICANN rules if a too-similar gTLD is allocated in the first round, or if their brand is so generic it could be used for other purposes, said Ben Crawford, CEO of CentralNIC.
For example, if the BBC secures .bbc, a company called BBE could find it impossible to acquire .bbe.
"If somebody else gets something confusingly similar, they'll get locked out," Crawford said. "Also, if somebody has a brand that is a dictionary word, there's a risk."
For these reasons, most companies are playing their dot-brand cards close to their chests. The only outfits to formally press-release their intentions to date are Hitachi and Canon. Others, including Microsoft and IBM, are also broadly expected to apply.
According to the domain registries that will act as infrastructure providers for most of these bids, the potential benefits of dot-brands include the ability to more easily name new products, new ways to use domains in advertising ("enjoy.coke") and joint-marketing opportunities.
"They no longer have to look to see what's available in .com," said Hansen. "Everything's available."
Some companies may even allow their customers to register domains in their dot-brands – imagine yourname.twitter or yourname.facebook, for example.
Some potential dot-brand applicants already have concrete plans covering how they will use their domains, registries working with these companies say.
But at the moment many potential dot-brand bidders are focused primarily on getting their domains – their hands forced by ICANN's deadline, they'll figure out how to use them later.
It's not particularly expensive – for some – to secure a dot-brand. ICANN's application fee of $185,000 is affordable for companies with large marketing budgets, and some registry services providers charge as little as $10,000 a year for a basic, place-holder gTLD package.
"It's not that much," said Crawford. "If you have a globally registered trademark you're already paying hundreds of thousands just maintaining your trademark registrations every year."
What this may mean, however, is that the internet sees a wave of defensive dot-brand applications that ultimately turn out to be useless, "orphaned" extensions that may just redirect to .com domains.
Today, when companies defensively register their brands in non-.com extensions, they rarely use them.
Could we also see a gTLD junkyard?
Registries are more optimistic, believing that dot-brands will leverage their marketing budgets to gradually train web users away from assuming ".com" in much the same way as they learned that "www." was not usually necessary.
"Once mass-marketing starts with dot-brand names, over time – not month one, maybe over a matter of years – that presumption that a domain name ends in .com will go away," Hansen said. "Consumers will start looking to the right of the dot." ®