JANUARY 2012 marks the start of “a whole new commercial phase for the internet”. And Peter Dengate Thrush (pictured, right) should know – as the former chairman of the board of Icann, the body responsible for the internet’s top-level domain name management, he oversaw the introduction of the reforms that are about to upend the world of web addresses. From 12 January next year until 12 April, applications will be open for the rights to generic top-level domains (gTLDs): instead of being limited to .com and a handful of others, applicants will pay $185,000 in the hope of claiming anything from .adidas to .zoo. Brands and geographic names will be reserved for their natural owners, but almost everything else will be available. In two years time, the results will be visible to internet users. And Thrush presents an intriguing opportunity for investors to gain exposure to this momentous transition.
In July, Thrush brought his expertise to an Aim-listed company, when he was appointed as executive chairman to the board of Top Level Domain Holdings (TLDH). TLDH is one of only eight to ten companies around the world specialising in this area, making strategic investments in the hope of obtaining and running certain gTLDs; TLDH also has an operating business, Minds and Machines, that runs new gTLDs on behalf of others.
No one knows exactly how the coming change will play out, but Anthony van Couvering, chief executive of TLDH, argues “you’ll start to see meaning inhabit those last letters after the dot in a way that it doesn’t today.” TLDH is interested in acquiring certain extensions, such as .eco, that it sees as offering high-value meaning, and it will also be managing new domain names on behalf of others, such as .mumbai.
Not everyone is happy about the new regime. Esther Dyson, the founding chairwoman of Icann, described the changes as “useless” in a recent interview with the technology media website TechCrunch. Thrush disagrees: “We’ll look back on the days when there were just a few top-level domains and wonder why, because the internet will be a much more colourful, vibrant, expressive, descriptive kind of place.”
Certainly, big companies will find it hard to ignore the pressure to own .yourbrandhere, while major cities worldwide may be attracted by the chance to own the equivalent of .london, which could potentially be as much a new revenue stream as a branding exercise. “It’s going to shake up the previous business models,” says Thrush.
TLDH may present an opportunity to get exposure to the next internet boom without entering the application process directly. It is certainly ambitious. “We plan to be a major player,” says van Couvering. Thrush offers some figures to put that in context: “The current domain name market is worth about $12bn. We think it will expand by some $3-4bn with the new gTLDs. And our ambition is to own 20-30 per cent of that.” The business model is in its infancy, with a market cap of £28.22m and pre-tax losses of £573,000 in the six months to April 2011, but this would-be dot-everything may be worth watching.