By now nearly everyone on the planet has heard or used the term “dot com”. Popularized by the so-named bubble of the late 90′s, “dot-com” is now a common moniker describing everything from new Internet start-up companies to shady guys in Australia!
So most people these days have heard of .com. You’ve probably used .org and .net as well. But have you heard of .info, .mobi or .tv yet? If not, you will! All of these are valid “top-level” domains (TLD) gaining in popularity and I’d like to provide a quick history lesson on how these generic codes came to be.
A long time ago when the Internet was barely more than a U.S. Department of Defense research project, only a single TLD called .arpa existed. ARPA stands for “Advanced Research Projects Agency“, or as they’re more commonly known: “the group of smart guys that figured out how to build the Internet”. This aptly-named .arpa TLD was used to migrate the first domain names off the old non-hierachical ARPANET to the shiny new Internet. Luckily, new TLDs were eventually introduced, because “ebay.arpa” and “google.arpa” just don’t have the same ring to them. Nonetheless .arpa is still in use today by computer network geeks like us even though we changed what it stands for (address routing & parameter area—told you it was geeky!)
Throughout the 1970′s and 80′s, the responsibility of managing the new Internet’s domain names fell loosely to university labs in California, the U.S. Military, and eventually a company called Network Solutions. During this tumultuous time, the standards for requesting new TLDs and keep track of who was using what was a bit shoddy, as valid TLDs were loosely grouped into three categories: Countries, Categories, and Multiorganizations. Not surprisingly things got messy. For instance, in the early 1980′s, NATO was upset that there wasn’t a sufficiently international-themed TLD for their organization, so .nato was created. In fact during the 1970′s – 1980′s, the various managing organizations were creating TLD’s that weren’t so generic. Can you imagine having a “.ibm” and “.yahoo” and so on today? Clearly there needed to be a standard solution as commercial interest in the Internet was growing.
In order to fix the problem the U.S. National Science Foundation decided to hold a bidding competition in the early 1990′s for three different aspects of managing domain name data:
- Registration services, so people could “sign up” for domains in a standard way
- Information services, so there was an organized method to know who owned what
- Directory and Database services, so there was a way to store and look up that data.
The contract was awarded to Network Solutions, General Atomics, and AT&T respectively and the collaberative organization known as InterNIC was born. This was a huge leap for today’s Internet, as it made it much easier for people and companies to “get online” with their own unique domain name since things were more organized under InterNIC. Many old-timers (I’m that old) remember a time when you had no choice in registering a domain. Everyone had to use Network Solutions!
Finally in 1998, a few folks at AT&T forgot to look at the expiration dates on their contracts and AT&T bowed out of managing their piece of the puzzle. This was a big turning point because the U.S. Government also wasn’t very interested in managing the Internet any longer. So instead of the U.S. Government taking on the job on directly, InterNIC was folded under a new non-profit company called ICANN. Contracted by the U.S Commerce Department, ICANN decides things like what new TLDs are deemed worthy. This is currently how it stands today, and InterNIC still provides that service as a subsidiary of ICANN.
Also under the management of ICANN, another big change occurred. Now any organization with sufficient worthiness (and many papers signed) could register domain names under the existing and established TLDs. This opened the doors for places like The Linux Fix to register domain names on behalf of their customers and make the whole process much easier for the average person. Obviously this has had a sweeping effect on the Internet by putting a globally-accessible domain name within reach of anyone.
And there you have it! The brief and amazing history of the Internet domain name. Oh, and perhaps you’re now wondering what all the valid TLDs are? Here you go!