The closure of RealNames Corp a week ago has started to cause a backlash among members of the Asian internet community, who are forecasting a major disruption in how speakers of Asian languages access the internet,Kevin Murphy writes
RealNames shut its doors last week, after Microsoft declined to renew an agreement that saw RealNames offer keyword-based web addressing via Internet Explorer's address bar. The lack of IE integration left RealNames with a less than attractive business model, and in Microsoft's debt to the tune of $25m.
Senior members of the Chinese, Korean and Japanese internet community have written to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and chairman Bill Gates, asking them to consider the company's position. One major Chinese web host said its customers feel "cheated and shortchanged" by the removal of RealNames features from IE.
Because the internet's domain name system cannot handle Asian characters, RealNames has been resolving Asian-language keywords and domain names, under deals with the likes of VeriSign Inc (for .com) and Japan Registry Services Co Ltd (for .jp). These deals allowed Asians to use their own languages and alphabets, rather than numbers or English, when surfing the web.
Hirofumi Hotta, director of JPRS, wrote to Gates and Ballmer last week, according to RealNames CEO Keith Teare. Hotta could not be contacted for comment at press time yesterday, but Teare's website republished an open email he sent to the Microsoft top two last week.
He wrote: "[The Japanese] are eager to use their own-language domain names. This is proven by seeing over 60,000 Japanese domain names have already been registered under .jp. Please appreciate this fact and make your products and services capable of resolving Internationalized Domain Names [IDNs] as well as ASCII domain names."
Qiheng Hu, president of the Internet Society of China, and former VP of the Chinese Academy of Sciences also wrote to Ballmer last week, Teare said in his personal web site. Qiheng is a member of the Internet Engineering Task Force group working on a technical standard for addressing non-ASCII IDNs in the DNS.
She wrote: "I believe that your decision to stop supporting [RealNames] is not a correct one even for Microsoft... why should you decide to stop this win-win collaboration? Microsoft is a highly respected corporation in the world as well as in China. I hope that you'll reconsider this issue and make your partner and your users happy."
Joseph Zhu, VP of business development at HiChina Web Solutions Ltd, which claims to be China's largest web hosting provider with over 300,000 names under management, wrote to Gates, asking for reconsideration. Again, he could not be reached for comment at press time, but Teare's site carried the text of his email.
"Our more than 10,000 Internet Keyword customers feel cheated and shortchanged," Zhu wrote. "I think this has already caused a lot of bad publicity for Microsoft. It confirms the widespread perception that Microsoft wants to monopolize the Internet and you do not care about the interests of the average consumers, although personally I like your company very much."
The RealNames/Microsoft contract comes to an end at the end of June. The company currently has a temporary staff of about 15 going about the process of selling off its assets, which include patents on keyword systems. VeriSign is believed to be in the running, but Microsoft has so far declined to comment on its plans.
A Microsoft spokesperson said: "Our decision regarding not renewing our contract with RealNames is final." They had no further comment.
But while pressure mounts on Microsoft in Asia to reconsider its decision, it looks as though the company may have been planning to implement a proprietary RealNames-style service all along. It emerged Friday that Microsoft had last August applied for a US patent on a keyword search system that looks a little like RealNames.
RealNames CEO Keith Teare goes further, saying his company implemented a system outlined in the Microsoft patent two to four years ago, which should be considered prior art. "I'm totally flabbergasted," Teare wrote. "We were explicitly told Microsoft WAS NOT planning on doing our service themselves. Oh boy are they in trouble if this is so."
A Microsoft spokesperson maintained that the company has no such plans: "Microsoft has literally thousands of patents, and we don't make a business out of each on. We don't plan to make a business out of keywords." Microsoft's position is that it rejected RealNames for customer satisfaction reasons.
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