Thursday, May 06, 2010

On internationalized TLDs (a contrarian opinion)

The Timberites rejoice. I'm obviously revealing my North America-centric roots but I think that this is a huge amount of cost for insufficient benefit.

Great civilizations leave their stamp on the conventions of world culture. The Romans gave us their calendar; the Indians gave us the modern numbering system; the Italians gave us terms and symbols used throughout the Western world in musical notation (piano, fortissimo, crescendo, ...). The global recognizability of these signifiers is part of what makes them useful.

In the modern era, American culture predominates in computing. In practically every programming language, English words like begin, define and integer (or abbreviations thereof) have special meanings understood by every programmer in the world.

With respect to TLDs, there are two alternatives before us. Alternative one is to make everyone in the world simply learn to use ASCII TLDs. Alternative two is to make everyone in the world learn to use, or at least recognize, TLDs in every Unicode script. Alternative one is actually the simpler alternative, even for non-English speakers.

Imagine if numbers were subject to the politics of modern i18n. We would have the modern positional decimal numeric system, but also the Roman numeral system, and the Babylonian numeral system, and so on, and nobody would ever have asked anyone to standardize on any of them. After all, we have to be sensitive to the local numeric culture of the Romans!

It's not like I'm saying people should communicate in English all the time. I'm only saying that people learn to type and to recognize ASCII TLDs. This is a relatively limited set of special-purpose identifiers. There are only about an order of magnitude more ccTLDs than months in the year or decimal digits. And I would claim that it's useful for everyone in the world to recognize that, say, .uk and .com look like the end of a domain name, whereas .foobar123 does not. Pop quiz: which one of the following is a new Arabic ccTLD, مص or مصام? The reason you can't recognize it is not just that you're an English speaker — people who only speak Mandarin or Spanish or Russian are in exactly the same boat as you. And when ICANN unveils the Chinese Simplified or Cyrillic or Bengali TLD scripts, Arabic speakers in turn won't be able to make heads or tails out of those.

But, whatever, my opinion's on the losing side of history, so it's almost pointless to express it. I just thought I'd get it out there that there was a real benefit to, and precedents for, the status quo where a convention originating in one culture diffuses and becomes universal.

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