Finally, the World Wide Web will live up to its name. The decision by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) that Web sites written in Russian, Chinese, Arabic, and other non-ASCII character sets will be able to have their Internet domain names displayed in their own languages truly makes the Web a global worldwide network. For the past 40 years (the Internet turned 40 this week) the Internet and the Web have been the exclusive domain of English language addresses. For non-English-speaking countries, it has been the real-world equivalent to forcing them to use English language stationary.
No longer will entire countries be forced to use Latin-based characters and their Web addresses and e-mail addresses will now be as recognizable as their telephone book. The move is being heralded by ICANN as the biggest technical change to the Internet since its birth.
A Truly Worldwide Wed
For that reason many around the world are cheering the move as a way of opening up Internet access to more people.
"The net result will be an expansion of the Internet in terms of resources and users. Small local businesses are likely to benefit as their Internet and e-mail address can now be in their own local language," according to a writer for Asia Times Online.
The Korea Herald pointedly quoted ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom as saying the new Internet names are "very important not only for more than half of the current [Internet] users but also for half of the Internet users to come."
More than 50 percent of the current total of 1.6 billion Internet users speak languages that aren't Latin-based, according to widely used estimates.
World Wide Web of Babel
Yet on the other hand, the new names carry risks for new security concerns and general user confusion. Some fear the Web might grow increasingly fragmented into areas easily accessible only to those conversant in local languages.
There are certainly lots of languages in the world, a problem mythologized in the Biblical tale of the fall of the Tower of Babel, in which God punished people by scattering them across the face of the Earth and splitting the human language into many different tongues.
Google, the world's leading search engine, now does support searches conducted with the use of Korean and Arabic character sets, for instance.
But ICANN's actions, although well intended, also raise nuts-and-bolts questions that are yet to be answered.
How will you be able to type the domain names of international Web sites when your keyboard doesn't support their character sets?
It would be logistically just about impossible for a PC maker to supply a keyboard supporting the Western "ABC" alphabet, along with the disparate character sets used in all of these tongues, for example: Japanese, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Cyrillic, and the Central and European languages.
It's true that you can download fonts used in these languages, along with "virtual keyboard layouts" that spare you the need to buy separate physical keyboards.
But things can get very dicey here. For instance, Russian keyboards are reportedly slightly different on Windows and Mac PCs.
And to handle the virtual keyboards with much efficiency, you need to put special stickers on your keys. Just how many virtual keyboards and sets of stickers is anyone supposed to have on hand in the house or office?
It looks as though we could see the development of a whole new class of Web domains that most people won't be able to get to easily -- even though they might be able to find those Web sites with a search engine.
Certainly language translation services and technology may be the biggest winners with today's news. I predict both will flourish along with an international land grab for variations of the word "sex" dot-com.