San Francisco No longer content with being the Internet's leading real-estate agent, the company in charge of registering .com, .net and .org addresses now has empire-building on its mind.
Network Solutions Inc. aims to become one of the Web's business barons by transforming itself from a mere broker and directory for Internet domain names into a one-stop shop for e-commerce services.
"The name of the game is much bigger than domain names now. It's all about building a greater Web presence," said chief executive James Rutt.
A lot is riding on Network Solutions' expansion plans. Mountain View-based VeriSign Inc., a leading maker of security software, bought Network Solutions for $19.6 billion six months ago with the hope that the name-registration business would serve as the foundation for an Internet powerhouse.
"We want to create something in the mold of Cisco Systems, General Electric and Intel," said Anil Pereira, a VeriSign senior vice president who oversees the company's Internet services division. "We think we are barely scratching the surface now."
VeriSign and Network Solutions together plan to offer companies and entrepreneurs all the tools to name, build, promote and protect their Web sites.
Network Solutions also positioned itself to resell Web sites with the recent acquisition of GreatDomains.com, which brokered such high-profile name deals such as the $3 million sale of loans.com and $823,000 sale of drugs.com.
VeriSign has backers, critics
Merrill Lynch analyst Mark Fernandes views VeriSign as a rising star, largely because of Network Solutions. VeriSign is Merrill Lynch's top-ranked software stock for 2001, topping more established names such as Microsoft, Oracle, PeopleSoft and Siebel Systems.
Network Solutions "is already taking the tickets at the entry to the ball, so they have a great opportunity to sell even more once people are inside the door," Fernandes said.
Other analysts are more doubtful about VeriSign's vision.
The critics think Network Solutions' name-registration business has about the same chance of selling more services to Web sites as an auto dealer would have making deals with car owners walking into a Department of Motor Vehicles office to do paperwork.
Investors have lumped VeriSign with other questionable Internet business models. The company's Dec. 28 closing price of $79.62 was more than 60 percent below the stock's value at the time of the Network Solutions purchase.
Company's global effects
Although it is little known or understood outside technology circles, Network Solutions has played an integral role in the Web's rapid development.
In 1995, the U.S. government put Network Solutions in charge of registering the Web addresses ending in .com, .net and .org.
The monopoly ended last year when the government required it to let other companies register names, but Network Solutions still controls the Web's master directory of some 25 million addresses.
Network Solutions receives a $6 annual fee for each name stored in its master directory, known as the "registry."
Last year's deregulation allowed dozens of other processing agents, known as "registrars," to file addresses in the Network Solutions registry, too.
Network Solutions remains the leading registrar, having helped put about 14 million sites on the Web's map. In its role as a registrar, Network Solutions typically charges $35 to process a name.
The landscape will change even more in 2001 with the creation of seven new domain suffixes .biz, .info, .aero, .coop, .museum, .name, and .pro. The expanded menu is expected to open the door even more for other rivals looking to make a dent in Network Solutions' market share.
By spring, Network Solutions also must sell its controlling stake in either the registry or its registrar business. VeriSign expects to disclose its plans during the first quarter of 2001, Pereira said.
Network Solutions has been preparing for the changes by expanding its reach.
Besides snapping up GreatDomains.com, Network Solutions also expanded its domain menu to include .tv in anticipation of Webcasting improvements that will make video transmission a staple of the Internet experience.
In a controversial move, Network Solutions also began registering domain names in Japanese, Korean and Chinese characters effective Nov. 10.
The move has exceeded expectations with the registration of 700,000 Asian-language addresses in the first 30 days, but the expansion also has outraged the Chinese government.
In response, China has established a competing registry to accept Chinese-language domain names, raising the prospect that Web surfers typing in the same address could be routed to entirely different sites.
Network Solutions has no intention of backing down.
"We play aggressively and we play to win," Rutt said. "Our feeling is that you only lose when you start playing a prevent defense."