ICANN, the international organization that maintains Internet domain names has announced that they are going to begin allowing domain names using scripts other than the Latin script to be used for top-level domains (that is, the extensions such as .com, .org, etc). Up until now, domains have been restricted mostly to the 26 letters of the English alphabet plus the 10 numeral glyphs of the Hindu-Arabic number system. CNET has a good write-up on all this:
IDNs will allow domain names to be to be written in native character sets, such as Chinese, Arabic, and Greek. In charge of managing domain names, ICANN has argued that IDNs are necessary to expand use of the Web in regions where people don’t understand English. Since its inception, the Internet has been limited to the Latin character set used by the U.S. and many other nations.
To expedite the new plan, ICANN will launch a Fast Track process on November 16. At that time, the organization will begin accepting applications from countries for new top level domains, or Internet extensions, based on each nation’s character set.
Initially, the change will apply only to local country codes, such as .kr for Korea and .ru for Russia. Major top level domains (TLDs) such as .com, .net., and .org won’t see non-Latin editions just yet. But ICANN is pushing to make progress on these major TLDs and hopes to include them in the IDN system before long.
This is definitely an important event in the history of the Internet. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker predicts a new .中国 domain (zhong1 guo2 = China), though I hope for simplicity’s sake they keep it .中. According to Wikipedia the effort to allow more character sets other than the basic ASCII set began with a proposal in 1996, and started bearing fruit in 1998. However, though they list several domains as accepting Chinese characters, I have yet to ever see a second-level domain (the main part of the URL) using them, usually I see them with domain names and pinyin. If Chinese-character top-level domains, that may cause them to be more used, as Chinese users won’t need to switch out of their IME’s to finish the address.
Still, I wonder how many of these new domains we’ll see used, other than companies grabbing their own brand names to make sure they have them. Many Chinese speakers do not use a "Chinese keyboard" to use a phrase used by a Tom Merrit on Buzz Out Loud‘s commentary, but instead a pinyin-based IME, most of which have an "English" setting for typing Latin characters (the default Windows IME works this way), and you still have to switch the punctuation type, unless ICANN finds a way to map 。 to the Western-style period (.) they use as the "dot" in "dot-com". Still, convenient or not, I think Osnos has a point that nationalism and cultural significance will drive Chinese sites to use and advertise their Chinese-character domain names.
Final note: I am by no means an expert on any of this. If I’m off base in saying there aren’t so many character-domain names, or if I have misunderstood something about the availability of Chinese character domains, please call me out. I’m still a little confused about the history here, so I might be off on some things.