The startup’s technology will let users store complete contact info on a new .tel domain—and make it available to whomever they choose
Say you want to reach an old friend who’s always on the move. Calling her at home using the number listed in the phone book (what a quaint notion!) probably won’t work. But how else can you find the various other ways to reach her—via mobile, or at work, or perhaps e-mail, instant messaging, Skype (EBAY), Facebook, or Twitter addresses?
Enter Telnic, which is aiming to become the Google (GOOG) of online address books in competition with traditional yellow and white pages. The London-based startup has developed technology that lets anyone store the full range of their contact details online and then give chosen people access to it. « It is a bit like an interactive business card on the Web that you can change and give to anyone so they can reach you, » says Justin Hayward, Telnic’s communications director. The service is slated to go live in December.
At first blush, that might not sound like much of a breakthrough. But Telnic’s approach is revolutionary because it’s exploiting a significant new capability in the Internet that has been authorized by governing body ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers), a private nonprofit group that oversees technical aspects of the Internet’s address system. ICANN has sanctioned a new top-level domain called .tel—similar to .com or .net—that is set aside purely to integrate contact information directly into the heart of the Net.
Telnic, which has so far raised about $35 million in financing, first applied to ICANN to commercialize the .tel domain in 2000. Permission finally came six years later, when ICANN awarded Telnic exclusive use of .tel. In the intervening time, the startup has spent about $15 million on the years of engineering needed to perfect the technology, Hayward says.
Along the way, Telnic has also attracted prestigious backers including Paris-based venture capital firm Banexi Ventures Partners; Juan Villalonga, a former chief executive of Spanish telecom operator Telefónica (TEF); and the Berggruen Group, led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, who made much of his fortune in private equity and hedge funds.
The technology developed by Telnic uses the Internet addressing system in an entirely new way. Until now top-level domains such as .co.uk or .edu have been mapped to Internet Protocol addresses for Web sites or other servers. The .tel scheme is more like a virtual directory—not associated with a specific site—containing all the contact information that individuals, companies, or other organizations wish to publish.
Since .tel information isn’t tied to the Web, individuals can post their contact information without having to put up and maintain their own Web sites—or, for that matter, sign up for social networking services such as LinkedIn. (Though they may want to do so for other reasons, such as professional networking.) The information can be retrieved from all manner of devices, including mobile phones or Internet-connected gizmos.
And because the data are in a standardized format easily downloadable, people will no longer need to enter and update their contact information on lots of different sites nor search painstakingly through a corporate Web site looking for a contact number.
This has lots of intriguing repercussions for businesses and individuals. Case in point: Instead of firing up, say, PizzaJoint.com on a PC to find the phone number and address of a local pizza parlor, customers will be able to go to PizzaJoint.tel and the contact details will pop into their phones. Telnic says that third-party applications are already being developed that will automatically import contact information from .tel into the Research in Motion (RIMM) BlackBerry and Apple (AAPL) iPhone. Contact details are represented as hot links, so clicking on a phone number will launch a call.
Easy and Cheap
New .tel addresses are also likely to spring up for categories of companies. A London hotel, for instance, might ensure that visitors can find it by registering with http://hotels.tel, which would then encourage users to call for reservations or click over to the hotel’s Web site. One advantage for companies, Hayward says, is that information on .tel doesn’t need to be managed by the IT department (unlike a Web site), so changes can be made easily and cheaply. « We built the technology so that all you have to do is fill in a form with contact information and press save, » says Hayward.
Needless to say, one of the biggest concerns is privacy. Telnic says its battle-tested technology leaves control over the dispersal of contact information in the hands of the domain owner, who can set different levels of access. So, for example, friends and family could have full view of all of an individual’s contact details, while other information is hidden from business contacts, unknown Web surfers, or search engines.
Like other domain names, .tel will be sold via designated registrars, which have to meet certain criteria and be approved by ICANN. On Oct. 22, Telnic announced that 100 registrars have already signed up to sell the .tel domain name in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Among them are U.S.-based Network Solutions, which ranks third-largest in the world in number of domains under management, and new entrants such as Digitrad, a Paris-based voice-over-Internet communications software company.
« Multimedia Phone Number »
Digitrad says it opted to be a registrar for .tel because it sees the potential for its own clients. It plans to use .tel domains to channel different forms of communication into a single interface, says Micha Benoliel, the company’s chief executive. For example, if a consumer agrees to include his location information, Digitrad will leverage the .tel information by providing a « multimedia phone number » that will ring wherever the person happens to be—at his desk, in the office, or on his mobile. A call can also be put through directly to a person’s computer whenever or wherever they are connected.
For each purchase of a .tel domain by a business customer, Digitrad will provide a vanity phone number, a virtual switchboard, a unified voicemail system, click-to-call solutions, and voice-over-IP services. Benoliel says both .tel and Digitrad’s own services will serve as a complement to existing Web sites, making it easier for clients to contact a business.
And, of course, Digitrad, like other registrars, will make money by selling the .tel address to individuals and businesses. Registration opens on Dec. 3 for businesses with registered trademarks. From Feb. 3 to Mar. 23, the so-called « land rush » period, businesses and individuals can sign up for an elevated fee that will differ from registrar to registrar. Digitrad, for example, plans to charge €300 ($397) for a one-year subscription. But after Mar. 23, Digitrad’s price will drop to just €1 ($1.32) per month. The advantage to signing up early is that names are doled out on a first-come, first-serve basis. Other registrars may charge differently, but the range is expected to fall within $15 to $25 a year, says Telnic’s Hayward.
Schenker is a BusinessWeek correspondent in Paris.