Land, it's said, is a good investment -- after all, they're not making any more of it.

On the internet, however, that's not the case. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, the not-for-profit body that oversees the web's addressing regime, is creating vast amounts of virtual real estate, setting the stage for a furious digital land grab.
Starting next April, interested parties can apply for new generic top-level domains -- that string of characters that forms part of every web address, like .com, .gov or .edu. Currently there are only 280 top-level domains; once the new policy takes effect, the number will be potentially unlimited.

Naturally, entrepreneurs are looking for ways to make money from the shift. One of the entities doing so most aggressively is Top Level Domain Holdings, which bills itself as the only public company whose entire mission is to buy and operate new domains. Today, TLDH (which is traded on the London Stock Exchange) is announcing a merger with Minds + Machines, a registry services provider that is one of a handful of companies that can provide the back-end technology to support new domains.

Antony Van Couvering, CEO of Minds + Machines, says he expects ICANN to approve the creation of 300 to 500 new top-level domains next year. "That's a really big thing, in my opinion," he says. "Anyone can apply, and unless you don't qualify on some pretty objective grounds, you'll get it."

But who would want to apply, exactly? Especially at a cost of $185,000 per top-level domain? So far, the market for "vanity domains" appears skewed towards municipalities and non-profits. Van Couvering is involved in applications for .eco, a domain that has backing from Al Gore and the Alliance for Climate Protection, and .nyc, which proposes to be New York City's web address, among others. (A more complete list of applicants can be seen at Support New TLDs, a site Minds + Machines created as a sort of clearinghouse for TLD news.)

Whether a substantial number of businesses will join the stampede is less clear. "In general, companies are not loving it, for some of the same reasons they don't love the internet in general," Van Couvering says. "Many of them have spent quite a big amount of money acquiring the .com name they missed. Now they're not keen on any disruption to what seems a somewhat stable ecosystem. They have the beachfront property they paid for -- and now here comes more beachfront property."

He offers a number of reasons they may want to set aside their skepticism, however, ranging from better search results and search click-through to the ability to offer customers email accounts.

"I think the branding opportunities are great," he says. "It's one thing to get .bud if you're Budweiser. But to get .beer would be a real coup. You'd have an identity between the product you sell and your brand."

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