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.com celebrates 25th birthday

The afterthought that took over the internet

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On April 26, 1985, a man called Charles Hornig complained on a mailing list that his new symbolics.com email address wasn't working. Scanning every mail server on the internet, all 1,008 of them, he discovered only one was configured to handle a .com address.

“I am not heartened by these results,” he wrote. “Maybe we should go back to .ARPA, which people at least understand?”

Twenty-five years ago today, his company, Symbolics, was the first to register a .com domain name. It was over a month before the second was registered and only three more were registered that year.

Today, there are almost 90 million .coms, with half a million new ones added every week. VeriSign, the .com registry, handles over 50 billion DNS queries every day. It's difficult to imagine an internet without it.

But there very nearly wasn't a .com at all. Draft specs published in May 1984 called for a “.cor”, for anything corporate-related. The same draft called for a “.pub”. By July, these had morphed into .com and .org, but nobody seems to know why.

Paul Mockapetris, who invented the DNS and is now chairman of Nominum, said he cannot remember whose idea it was to use the string '.com'. There was a lot of debate at the time, he said, with most of it focused on whether to create generic domains like .com or to make them all country-specific such as .uk.

“Back then none of this seemed important,” he said. “We set up .com so we could split off commercial issues and have all that dealt with separately. At the time, everybody thought that that was the tail and rest was the dog, but it turned out the reverse was true.”

Symbolics, the first .com registrant, also failed to realise the significance of its role in the nascent internet. Russell Noftsker, founder and president of the now-defunct Lisp computer maker, said that most commercial internet users were US government contractors 25 year ago.

“The driving application the funding agencies were interested in was the connectivity of researchers and contractors,” Noftsker said. “We thought there would be some commercial applications, but we did not know how broad that would be.”

It wasn't until the advent of the web in the early 1990s that domain name registrations, many of them speculative, started to take off in a big way. Early movers such as Gary Kremen, the original registrant of sex.com, went on to make millions from their investments. Even Symbolics.com was sold off last August for an undisclosed sum to a domain investor.

The engineers who created the system were not so fortunate.

“I was smart enough to invent it, but not smart enough to own it,” joked Mockapetris. “If someone had asked me, do you think you'll get 10,000 names registered, I would have said, well I hope so.”

ICANN, the body now responsible for managing new additions to the DNS, is set to soon open the floodgates for potentially hundreds of new top-level domains, many of which will compete with .com. So is .com's day over?

“I think there could be some dilution, but right now .com is the only international brand,” said Mockapetris. Many country-code domains stagnate because local businesses all want a .com, he said. “Until someone figures out how to break that, it's going to stay that way.”

VeriSign is currently running a marketing campaign to celebrate .com's birthday, at 25yearsof.com. ®

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